People attend a “Fight4Her” pro-choice rally in front of the White House at Lafayette Square on March 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. A coalition of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood and Population Connection Action Fund gathered to demand the end of the ‘Global Gag Rule’. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
Sen. Tammy Baldwin joined 13 other Democratic U.S. Senators in signing a letter that asks two data companies to stop collecting and selling the location data of people who visit abortion clinics.
Led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the group called the data brokers SafeGraph and Placer.ai practices of selling location data to anyone “appalling.” The letter was sent after a report by Vice found that people can purchase the data of anyone who visits a Planned Parenthood clinic, including where they came from, how long they stayed and where they went afterwards.
“SafeGraph’s decision to sell data that allowed any buying customer to determine the locations of people seeking abortion services was simply unconscionable, risking the safety and security of women everywhere,” the letter states.
Vice reported that it was able to purchase the location data of visitors to more than 600 Planned Parenthood locations for $160. Not all locations provide abortion services.
The companies have said that all the location data is anonymous, however it is possible to figure out who is represented by each data point — if they’re tracked to their home address, for example. The letter states that this is especially alarming in the wake of the leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade and end the constitutional right to an abortion.
In Wisconsin, the decision will mean an 1849 law that bans abortion will be triggered. Other states, including Texas, have criminalized all abortions and provided rewards for people who report them.
“It is difficult to overstate the dangers of SafeGraph’s unsavory business practices. Antiabortion activists have already used location data to send targeted anti-choice ads to women’s phones while they are sitting in abortion clinics,” the letter states. “Anti-abortion violence is on the rise, with assaults and threats of harm against abortion providers more than doubling between 2016 and 2020. Anti-abortion politicians in Republican-led states have placed bounties on women who receive abortions and doctors that provide them and even proposed laws that would punish pregnant people for traveling to seek abortions out of state. Anti-abortion prosecutors have used search and message data to criminally charge abortion seekers.These and other practices targeting women seeking necessary health care services are almost certain to escalate if Roe v. Wade is gutted and abortion is criminalized instantly in states across the nation.”
SafeGraph said earlier this month that it would stop selling abortion-related data and Placer.ai removed the ability to do searches for Planned Parenthood location data after the Vice report, but the senators said that’s not enough.
In addition to demanding an end to the practices, the senators asked a number of questions of the companies, including how many people the data was sold to, if the companies have any procedures in place to prevent the misuse of the data and who bought the data.
The tracking of someone’s location isn’t the only digital privacy issue that could be affected after Roe is struck down. Internet search histories are easily accessed by law enforcement officers with a search warrant, meaning that in a state where abortion is illegal, internet searches such as “where to get an abortion,” could be retrieved and used as evidence.
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