To live in America in 2022 is to live twice: once in our daily, analog lives, and again in the digital ether, where our lives leave detailed trails. Every now and again, we are reminded of just how much of our second selves exist outside of our control.
In the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade, Google announced it would be automatically deleting location histories when users visit abortion clinics (as well as other locations Google deems “particularly personal,” including weight-loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, and fertility centers).
Though the company claims users can already turn off the location tracking feature — a claim that privacy advocates say is dubious — this is the first time Google will auto-delete user data based on the company’s own determination of what constitutes a sensitive location.
Google has decided, in other words, that visitors to abortion clinics deserve a higher standard of company enforced privacy then, say, visitors to gun shows, Catholic churches, Republican political rallies, or any other locations now deemed “problematic” by progressive activists.
Google’s decision raises significant questions about how it will classify certain data in the future, and what it will do with it. But to understand the ramifications of Google’s choice is to first understand the scope of what Google knows about you and everyone else. The company has made itself indispensable to accessing the modern economy and our digital lives, and amassed a voluminous trove of our most intimate data in the process.
This data isn’t just harvested when users engage on Google’s platforms like search, Gmail, or YouTube, but more often unintentionally and invisibly via the backend services Google provides to millions of websites, apps, and smart devices.
Anytime you open an app powered by Google Maps API, like Uber, Lyft, Waze, or even Yelp, you are sending data to Google. Same goes when you use Spotify, which hosts its product on Google Cloud. Data shifts over to Google anytime your phone, computer, and smart devices communicates with the 14,232,576 IP addresses controlled by the company. Google ads and analytics track you across the web — from shopping, to searching, and even filing your taxes with the IRS.
While Google profits wildly from this data, it’s also used for less savory ends. The government can compel access to Google’s data horde with a warrant, subpoena, or court order, and according to the company’s transparency report, it complies roughly 80% of the time.
As our law enforcement institutions become more agenda driven, it’s not hard to imagine how a politically motivated Department of Justice might use location data to selectively enforce the law. Consider that court documents in at least 45 of the federal criminal cases brought against the January 6th protestors cite Google geolocation data. Yet somehow police nationwide were only able to solve less than half the murders committed in 2020.
But also concerning is what the company chooses to do voluntarily. While Google is auto-deleting location data in this instance, what about the data it decides to share?
In April of 2020, Google published region-wide, aggregated user location data called “Community Mobility Reports” intended to show how people were complying with lockdown and social distancing orders. The data, the most recent of which were only 48 to 72 hours old, covered 131 regions and countries and tracked user visits to retail stores, parks, transit stations, offices and residences.
While the reports didn’t include the granular details of identifiable individual data, the move demonstrated how easily Google can repackage its data to police for compliance.
That state governments won’t be able to access the location data of users who visit abortion clinics appears to be the motivation for Google’s new policy of auto-deleting it, despite no state attorney general seeking to compel the data. But why shouldn’t all location data be afforded the same privilege? Why is Google happy to publicly assist in compliance with some laws, ostensibly the ones it agrees with, but not in others?
The bracing reality of all of this is that if Google did decide to begin weaponizing its user data — handing over the names and locations of everyone who visited a gun enthusiast site, attended a pro-life rally, or searched for a banned Joe Rogan podcast — the users themselves would have very little recourse to stop them.
And there’s the rub of living twice. Our digital echoes and the deeply personal details they reflect are only private up to a point. And that point begins and ends with Google’s politics.
Rachel Bovard is the senior director of policy at The Conservative Partnership Institute.