After the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade last year, a bunch of the corporations which have built their business on knowing the physical locations of people without their knowledge or explicit permission said they would not permit the use of that information for health-related reasons. Google promised it would delete records of visits to abortion providers, domestic violence shelters, and rehab centres; when Accountable Tech checked several months later, it found much of that information was still retained.
Geoffrey Fowler, of the Washington Post, decided to look again:
To test Google’s privacy promise, I’ve been running an experiment. Over the last few weeks, I visited a dozen abortion clinics, medical centers and fertility specialists around California, using Google Maps for directions. A colleague visited two more in Florida.
In about half of the visits, I watched Google retain a map of my activity that looked like it could have been made by a private investigator.
This didn’t happen every time. After I sat for 15 minutes in the parking lots of two clinics south of San Francisco, Google deleted each from my location history within 24 hours. It did the same for my colleague’s two visits to clinics in Florida.
To state the obvious, about half the time, Google will keep a record of a visit to a sensitive location even though a user might not have been aware it was tracking them, which is better than all the time, but substantially worse than none of the time.
Google is one of the most valuable businesses in the world and cannot reliably prevent a record of a visit to a more sensitive location. What about a smaller business similarly built on violating individuals’ privacy?
Byron Tau and Patience Haggin, the Wall Street Journal:
A Midwest antiabortion group used cellphone location data to target online content to visitors of certain Planned Parenthood clinics, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Near, the location broker whose data was used to geofence the Planned Parenthood clinics and extract the mobile-phone data, was one among a number of similar companies that faced inquiries from regulators last year over whether its data set could be used for tracking people seeking abortions.
The company told investors it received an inquiry from members of the House of Representatives about abortion tracking in July. “We communicated to the Members that the company doesn’t allow the use of its data for law enforcement or healthcare purposes, including the disclosure of reproductive rights information,” Near said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Why anybody is wasting their time pretending that companies with this business model are willing and able to protect users’ privacy would be laughable if it were not so dangerous. This is a solvable problem, but the answer will not be provided by organizations like these.