Our concerns about the selling and misuse of location data for those seeking reproductive and gender healthcare are escalating amid a recent wave of cases and incidents demonstrating that the digital trail we leave is being used by anti-abortion activists.

The good news is some
states and tech companies are taking steps to better protect location data privacy, including information that endangers people needing or seeking information about reproductive and gender-affirming healthcare. But we know more must be done—by pharmacies, our email providers, and lawmakers—to plug gaping holes in location data protection.

Location data is
highly sensitive, as it paints a picture of our daily lives—where we go, who we visit, when we seek medical care, or what clinics we visit. That’s what makes it so attractive to data brokers and law enforcement in states outlawing abortion and gender-affirming healthcare and those seeking to exploit such data for ideological or commercial purposes.

What we’re seeing is deeply troubling. Sen. Ron
Wyden recenty disclosed that vendor Near Intelligence allegedly gathered location data of people’s visits to nearly 600 Planned Parenthood locations across 48 states, without consent. It sold that data to an anti-abortion group, which used it in a massive anti-abortion ad campaign.The Wisconsin-based group used the geofenced data to send mobile ads to people who visited the clinics.

It’s hardly a leap to imagine that law enforcement and bounty hunters in anti-abortion states would gladly buy the same data to find out who is visiting Planned Parenthood clinics and try to charge and imprison women, their families, doctors, and caregivers. That’s the real danger of an unregulated data broker industry; anyone can buy what’s gathered from warrantless surveillance, for whatever nefarious purpose they choose.

For example, police in Idaho, where abortion is illegal,
used cell phone data in an investigation against an Idaho woman and her son charged with kidnapping. The data showed that they had taken the son’s minor girlfriend to Oregon, where abortion is legal, to obtain an abortion.

The exploitation of location data is not the only problem. Information about prescription medicines we take is not protected against law enforcement requests. The nation’s eight largest pharmacy chains, including CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, have routinely turned over
prescription records of thousands of Americans to law enforcement agencies or other government entities secretly without a warrant, according to a congressional inquiry.

Many people may not know that their prescription records can be obtained by law enforcement without too much trouble. There’s not much standing between someone’s self-managed abortion medication and a law enforcement records demand. In April the U.S. Health and Human Services Department proposed a
rule that would prevent healthcare providers and insurers from giving information to state officials trying to prosecute some seeking or providing a legal abortion. A final rule has not yet been published.

Exploitation of location and healthcare data to target communities could easily expand to other groups working to protect bodily autonomy, especially those most likely to suffer targeted harassment and bigotry. With states
passing and proposing bills restricting gender-affirming care and state law enforcement officials pursuing medical records of transgender youth across state lines, it’s not hard to imagine them buying or using location data to find people to prosecute.

To better protect people against police access to sensitive health information, lawmakers in a few states have taken action. In 2022, California
enacted two laws protecting abortion data privacy and preventing California companies from sharing abortion data with out-of-state entities.

Then, last September the state enacted a
shield law prohibiting California-based companies, including social media and tech companies, from disclosing patients’ private communications regarding healthcare that is legally protected in the state.

Massachusetts lawmakers have proposed the
Location Shield Act, which would prohibit the sale of cellphone location information to data brokers. The act would make it harder to trace the path of those traveling to Massachusetts for abortion services.

Of course, tech companies have a huge role to play in location data privacy. EFF was glad when Google said in 2022 it would delete users’ location history for visits to medical facilities, including abortion clinics and counseling and fertility centers. Google pledged that when the location history setting on a device was turned on, it would delete entries for particularly personal places like reproductive health clinics soon after such a visit.

But a
study by AccountableTech testing Google’s pledge said the company wasn’t living up to its promises and continued to collect and retain location data from individuals visiting abortion clinics. Accountable Tech reran the study in late 2023 and the results were again troubling—Google still retained location search query data for some visits to Planned Parenthood clinics. It appears users will have to manually delete location search history to remove information about the routes they take to visiting sensitive locations. It doesn’t happen automatically.

Late last year, Google announced
plans to move saved Timeline entries in Google Maps to users’ devices. Users who want to keep the entries could choose to back up the data to the cloud, where it would be automatically encrypted and out of reach even to Google.

These changes would
appear to make it much more difficult—if not impossible—for Google to provide mass location data in response to a geofence warrant, a change we’ve been asking Google to implement for years. But when these features are coming is uncertain—though Google said in December they’re “coming soon.”

Google should implement the changes sooner as opposed to later. In the meantime, those seeking reproductive and gender information and healthcare can
find tips on how to protect themselves in our Surveillance Self Defense guide.