Family Planning Apps And Websites Could Pose Risks To Abortion Seekers

The privacy practices of websites and apps that offer information related to family planning have come under new scrutiny this year, given the possibility that the Supreme Court will soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling legalized abortion throughout the country.

If the Supreme Court overturns that 1973 ruling, 26 states are expected to immediately pass new restrictions on abortion, or enforce existing restrictions that were previously considered unconstitutional.

In that case, law enforcement authorities in those states could attempt to prosecute abortion seekers based on data collected by websites, ad tech companies and mobile apps.

A new report by Pixalate suggests that family planning apps -- meaning apps with the words “pregnancy” or “period” -- could indeed be a rich source of data for aggressive prosecutors.

According to the report 28% of family planning apps on Apple request access to location when the app is in use, and 13% do so when the app isn't being used.

What's more, 11% of family planning apps on Android and 10% of such apps on Apple share users' GPS data with advertisers, while 8% of Android family planning apps and 4% of Apple family planning apps share users' IP addresses with advertisers.

The report was based on data collected earlier this year.

This report comes on top of an investigation by The Markup and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which said earlier this week that Facebook currently amasses data about users who visit sites operated by anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers.”

The news organizations specifically reported that at least 294 out of 2,500 crisis pregnancy centers shared data with Facebook.

“In many cases, the information was extremely sensitive -- for example, whether a person was considering abortion or looking to get a pregnancy test or emergency contraceptives,” the report states.

For its part, Facebook reportedly said its system is designed to filter “potentially sensitive data.”

In yet another report, Vice revealed last month that the company SafeGraph was already selling location data of users who visited Planned Parenthood centers.

SafeGraph reportedly obtained the data from apps on users' phones. The information -- like much of the data collected via mobile apps -- was supposedly aggregated and “anonymized.” But people's identities can sometimes be discovered based on supposedly anonymous location data.

News of these data collection and sharing practices has alarmed privacy advocates and Democratic lawmakers. This week, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill that would prohibit data brokers -- broadly defined as anyone who “collects, buys, licenses, or infers data about individuals and then sells, licenses, or trades that data” -- from disclosing people's health or location information.

Whether Congress is inclined to pass that kind of nationwide privacy bill remains unknown. In the last few years, numerous lawmakers have proposed legislation that would restrict web companies from collecting or sharing data. So far, none of those bills have gotten far on Capitol Hill.

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