Google Doubles Down On Protecting Women's Health Data

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Amid the overturn of Roe v. Wade, leadership at Google pledged to delete sensitive data like clinic visits and menstrual cycle tracking.

In the wake of the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the privacy of online users and the security of their health and location data has come under scrutiny, with many users concerned over the exploitation risks as abortion laws stand to change dramatically nationwide. 

In a blog post published on July 1, Google leadership reaffirmed their commitment to protect users’ privacy within the search engine and the software company’s affiliate apps. 

“We’re committed to delivering robust privacy protections for people who use our products, and we will continue to look for new ways to strengthen and improve these protections,” the post reads. 

While the blog post largely reviews some of the privacy settings currently available within Google, Jen Fitzpatrick, the Senior Vice President of Google’s Core Systems & Experiences department, wrote that users tracking their menstrual cycles will be able to delete any data logged in apps like Fitbit and Google Fit. 

“Fitbit users who have chosen to track their menstrual cycles in the app can currently delete menstruation logs one at a time, and we will be rolling out updates that let users delete multiple logs at once,” Fitzpatrick wrote. 

Allowing users control over the health data they enter into menstrual cycle and period tracking apps ensures that their data cannot be used by law enforcement to target women potentially seeking abortions. 

Location history, including places people visit, will also be deleted. The statement said that visits to medical facilities, counseling centers, abortion clinics and fertility treatment centers, among others, will be deleted automatically following a recorded visit. This change is set to occur in the coming weeks. 

Advocacy groups have sounded off on the potential dangers of the exploitation of women’s reproductive health data. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the Supreme Court decisions regarding landmark abortion right cases threatens digital health data. 

“Reproductive justice and safe access to abortion, like so many other aspects of managing our healthcare, is fundamentally tied to our digital lives,” the EFF states. “With the decision of Dobbs v. Jackson to overturn the protections that Roe v. Wade offered for people seeking abortion healthcare, what was benign data before is now potentially criminal evidence.”

Google acknowledges the concerns over health data privacy in its statement.

“We understand that people rely on Google to keep their personal data secure,” the post reads. “We’ve long been committed to this work, and today we're sharing additional steps we're taking to protect user privacy around health issues.”

The release also added that Google will continue to resist law enforcement attempts at collecting data, aside from “emergency situations.”

Google has long been pressured to refrain from collecting user data and allowing third parties to access it. Earlier in 2022, Democratic lawmakers issued a letter to the tech giant specifically over concerns about harvesting data from Android phones that may be used in prosecuting individuals seeking abortions.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have recently collaborated on formal legislation to ensure improved data protection for American users. The American Data Privacy and Protection Act provides a large framework for ensuring personal data stored online is not accessed without consent or used maliciously, targeting data brokers specifically. 

While leadership within Google didn’t explicitly mention supporting the ADPPA, it did note that the company will continue to support similar legislative initiatives protecting user data.