Google’s Tracking Tools Intercept Abortion Data, Suit Says
By: Enrique Serna
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Google’s Tracking Tools Intercept Abortion Data, Suit Says
Written By: Allison Grande
Re-Posted from Law360 (May 15, 2023, 10:32 PM EDT) — Google is surreptitiously gathering information about abortion appointments and other sensitive medical information through tracking technology embedded on websites run by Planned Parenthood and other major health care providers, according to a putative class action filed in California federal court.
In a complaint lodged Friday, plaintiff Jane Doe accused Google of violating the California Invasion of Privacy Act, California Confidentiality of Medical Information Act and individuals’ right to privacy in the California Constitution by collecting, without authorization, sensitive health information belonging to people who visit third-party websites that incorporate Google’s tracking technology.
These tracking tools — which include software development kits, tracking pixels, cookies and Google Analytics — intercept information about users’ interactions with these websites, including the information they input and what content they click, and send that data back to Google to help boost its marketing, analytics and targeted advertising capabilities, according to the complaint.
“The private communications, which Google intruded upon and intercepted without plaintiff’s and class members’ authorization or consent, included extremely sensitive information like whether a user was pregnant and scheduled an abortion,” the plaintiff alleged, adding that the tech company’s actions constitute both “an extreme invasion of privacy” and “an egregious breach of the social norms” due to the “highly sensitive and personal” nature of the intercepted data.
The anonymous plaintiff, who resides in Los Angeles County, claimed that her private information was swept up by Google after she used the Planned Parenthood website in 2018 to search for an abortion provider through Planned Parenthood’s scheduling pages.
Through the tracking technology incorporated on Planned Parenthood’s website, Google was able to intercept information about her interactions with the website as well as the treatment she received at the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Burbank, California, that she selected, according to the complaint.
The plaintiff added that this same tracking technology “is or was incorporated on the vast majority” of health care provider websites that allow patentis to schedule appointments online and access sensitive health information, including those belonging to major institutions such as Keck Medicine of USC, MemorialCare: Long Beach Medical Center and Sharp HealthCare.
“Accordingly, Google at all times knew that the incorporation of its tracking technology into healthcare provider websites would result in its interception of sensitive information, including health information relating to the scheduling of sensitive medical appointments (for example, abortions), medical conditions, specific treatments, messages to healthcare providers, and [personally identifiable information],” the plaintiff asserted.
On the other hand, the plaintiff and other potential class members who visited these websites never consented to the interception of their data by Google and were entirely “unaware their confidential communications would be intercepted, stored, and used in the first place,” Doe said.
The plaintiff added that this isn’t “the first or last time Google has been called out for collecting sensitive data like health information.”
In November 2019, the Financial Times reported Google had received prescription drug names inputted by users on the website drugs.com, according to the complaint.
“Despite this, Google still took no action to prevent its tracking technology from being embedded on healthcare provider websites from which it received sensitive health information,” the plaintiff said.
Doe further asserted that Google had failed to adequately respond to data privacy concerns raised in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court‘s June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization . That ruling, which struck down the constitutional right to abortion, has stoked fears that Google and other major service providers would pass on sensitive information they amass about individuals’ online searches, communications and location history to law enforcement for use in prosecutions in states that have outlawed or banned the procedure.
“As demonstrated by the incorporation of Google’s tracking technology on healthcare provider websites, Google did not take any steps to prevent its interception and use of users’ sensitive health data,” the plaintiff asserted in her complaint, adding that Google has failed to take this action because it “does not want to stop collecting the data.”
The plaintiff seeks to certify a nationwide class, as well as a California subclass of individuals whose health information or other sensitive data was intercepted by, or disclosed to, Google through Google’s tracking technology on health-based apps or websites.
The complaint also requests damages and a declaration that Google’s conduct violates California’s wiretap and medical confidentiality laws and class members’ privacy rights, as well as “a disgorgement of profits made by Google as a result of its intrusions upon plaintiff’s and class members’ privacy.”
The plaintiff added that “given the secret and undisclosed nature of Google’s conduct,” she expects additional evidence supporting her claims, including the “full extent of how Google intercepted plaintiff’s and class members’ private communications, and how they use that information,” to be revealed during discovery.
Google couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.
Doe is represented by Hal D. Cunningham, Joseph P. Guglielmo, Carey Alexander and Erin Green Comite of Scott + Scott Attorneys At Law LLP, and Christian Levis and Amanda G. Fiorilla of Lowey Dannenberg PC.
Counsel information for Google was not immediately available.
The case is Doe v. Google LLC, case number 5:23-cv-02343, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
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