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Tech Giants Brace for Legal Mess of Abortion Data Subpoenas

Companies including Google and Microsoft would have evidence on users seeking abortions. Will they fight government demands for private information?

The Google campus in Mountain View, California.
The Google campus in Mountain View, California.Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Technology giants including Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Google, facing questions about whether they’d hand over users’ personal data to authorities pursuing evidence on abortion seekers, are bracing for the multi-state legal quagmire that will govern privacy in a post-Roe world.

From map searches to private messages, a trove of information stored in the companies’ data centers could be used as a digital trail of breadcrumbs linking a patient to the termination of a pregnancy, a procedure being restricted in multiple US states, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The largest tech companies, which have in the past mounted high-profile legal opposition to law enforcement data requests, have been largely silent about what they’ll do in these cases. 

Consider a hypothetical online search for abortion pills: A woman in Texas searches for "mifepristone" and buys it from a New York pharmacy. Google may have a record of the web search, and the receipt may land in a Microsoft Outlook inbox. Google is based in California and Microsoft in Washington, but digital records of her queries and her inbox may be stored at Google’s data center in New Albany, Ohio, or Microsoft’s in Des Moines, Iowa. If law enforcement officials in Texas seek evidence from Google or Microsoft, a clash of four different sets of state laws and two companies may ensue. It’s a question that could be replicated across a host of different online services and data sources—and involve information that in many states could incriminate not just patients, but their confidants and health-care providers.