Technology

The Supreme Court Accidentally Spurred a Data Privacy Push

Hi, folks. The winner of the week is Reed Hastings, who lost a million subscribers but saw Netflix’s stock skyrocket because he didn’t lose more. What a showman!

The Plain View

I got an email from Google the other day. “Dear Steven,” went the text, “This is a reminder that any existing Location History data you have in your Google Account will be deleted on September 1, 2022.” That was a surprise to me, because I thought I had long ago turned off the voluntary feature that let Google log my whereabouts, as if I had my own personal Mossad agent trailing me, 24/7. I checked my account and discovered that while I had indeed informed my silent shadow to stand down, I hadn’t wiped clean my location history from before then, which included my whereabouts between June 2013 and January 2019. Should the government subpoena me, they’d know all.

I appreciated Google’s promise to proactively wipe this clean. Considering the timing, I wondered whether the email came as a reaction to the Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson decision, denying the right to abortion. It hadn’t; I had forgotten that Google periodically sends out such notices in cases like mine, where the location data is just hanging around. But Google does understand that the Dobbs decision has made the handling of personal data a more urgent subject. Not just Google, but all of big tech—and a lot of smaller app developers—might find themselves routinely asked to hand over information that could lead to prosecutions of abortion seekers and those who aid them. Meanwhile, people are deleting apps that track their menstrual cycles, in fear that the data could be used against those suspected of having an abortion.

So it’s no surprise that within a week of the Supreme Court’s bizarre reading of the Constitution, Google did adopt a new policy: From now on, when people visit certain medical facilities—“counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, and cosmetic surgery clinics”—Google will promptly delete those stops from the user’s location history.

That’s a welcome step, but hardly a solution to the steady erosion of our privacy in the digital age. The big companies insist that they’re on the case. Google, like almost all of the large technology companies, has a giant privacy effort with well-meaning people trying to protect its users from dystopian abuses of its technology. Apple has made privacy protection a marketing focus, using end-to-end encryption for critical data. (Also, Apple doesn’t have an equivalent to Google’s location history, even for those who might want it.)

But we are still miles away from adequate privacy. In the aggregate, it’s nearly impossible to take full advantage of today’s wondrous technology without making our personal information vulnerable—from governments, hackers, or, all too often, advertisers. We’ve built an entire infrastructure based on sucking up data. So it’s no wonder that when state governments are contemplating a cosplay of The Handmaid’s Tale, we have to worry that pregnant people will be ratted out by their phones and their apps.

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