Commentary

Data Brokers Selling Location Information Face New Scrutiny

As long as smartphones have existed, so have concerns that the devices are revealing information about their owners' whereabouts.

In the past, those concerns led to lawsuits, proposed fines, and at least one complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.

But since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, fears about location privacy have taken on a new urgency -- at least among Democrats and privacy advocates, who are warning that location data collected by apps, brokers, Android devices and wireless carriers could be used to prosecute women seeking abortions.

Fueling those fears, Vicereported in May that data brokers including SafeGraph sold location information of users who visited Planned Parenthood centers.

advertisement

advertisement

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, as the FTC noted this week, anonymized data can be re-identified -- especially when the data includes users' locations.

"Companies that make false claims about anonymization can expect to hear from the FTC," the agency said this week.
 
SafeGraph very recently stopped selling data about visits to family planning locations. The company also insists that its anonymization techniques weren't likely to be cracked.

“We believe reports alleging that it is possible to re­identify SafeGraph data are inaccurate,” the company said in a letter sent late last month to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), who had questioned the company over its policies.

SafeGraph is hardly the only data broker to come under scrutiny in recent weeks. 

Late last week, a trio of House Democrats demanded answers about privacy from SafeGraph and four other data brokers: Digital Envoy, Placer.ai, Gravy Analytics and Babel Street.

“We are alarmed by recent reports that data broker companies, which aggregate consumer data from various sources, are selling the location data of individuals who have used these services, potentially allowing the misuse of this sensitive information to invade the privacy of those seeking reproductive health care,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Illinois), and Sara Jacobs (D-California) said in letters to the companies.

“The collection of sensitive data could pose serious threats to those seeking reproductive care as well as providers of care -- not only by facilitating intrusive government surveillance, but also by putting people at risk of harassment, intimidation, and even violence,” the lawmakers added.

They asked the companies a host of questions relating to their policies on sales of location data, and specifically requested a list of all purchasers of information relating to family planning or abortion clinics.

Meanwhile, pressure by advocacy groups and Democrats appears to have prodded Google into promising to delete data showing that people visited abortion clinics or other sensitive locations. 

But even deleting that type of data may not be enough to protect privacy. The watchdog Accountable Tech, which frequently criticizes Silicon Valley companies, says Google's move “is ultimately inadequate to protect the privacy of those seeking abortions and other reproductive health care."

Instead, Accountable Tech is urging Google to delete all location data -- not just information believed to be connected to a sensitive locale.

Next story loading loading..