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FTC urged to protect data privacy of women visiting abortion clinics

As Supreme Court set to overturn Roe v Wade, safeguards on location info now more vital than ever

Updated Democrat senators have urged America's Federal Trade Commission to do something to protect the privacy of women after it emerged details of visits to abortion clinics were being sold by data brokers.

Women's healthcare is an especially thorny issue right now after the Supreme Court voted in a leaked draft majority opinion to overturn Roe v Wade, a landmark ruling that declared women's rights to have an abortion are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

If the nation's top judges indeed vote to strike down that 1973 decision, individual states, at least, can set their own laws governing women's reproductive rights. Thirteen states already have so-called "trigger laws" in place prohibiting abortions – mostly with exceptions in certain conditions, such as if the pregnancy or childbirth endangers the mother's life – that will go into effect if Roe v Wade is torn up. People living in those states would, in theory, have to travel to another state where abortion is legal to carry out the procedure lawfully, although laws are also planned to ban that.

Which is why keeping a lid on data on people's whereabouts, especially their journeys to abortion clinics, is more important than ever.

"In light of reports that the Supreme Court is set to overrule Roe vs. Wade, we are concerned about the privacy of women making decisions that should be between them, their families, and their doctors, as they have for nearly five decades," according to a letter [PDF] addressed to the FTC signed by 16 Democrat senators.

The senators are particularly concerned about reports of data brokers buying and selling location data gathered from SDKs in third-party apps installed on people's phones. The data could, for example, show groups of women travelling to other states to visit abortion clinics or family healthcare practices. A Vice report revealed buyers can purchase location data for $160 showing folks visiting Planned Parenthood facilities across the country over the course of a week.

There is a fear this location data can be used to identify and track individuals.

"We are concerned about online markets that sell and trade mobile phone location data. This data is often collected and sold by ordinary apps installed on a person's smartphone, such as weather apps. The data is then bought and resold by data brokers. All of this information has historically been used to identify individuals. The estimated value of the location data market was approximately $14 billion in 2021," the lawmakers' letter, dated last week, stated.

The senators asked the FTC to state how it plans to mitigate potential harms of location data collected by apps for such purposes; and if the trade watchdog needs additional resources to better keep women's personal data away from data brokers. They also asked whether the regulator was working with prosecutors and local governments to prevent shady businesses from accessing or handling location data. 

"We respectfully request additional information on what steps the FTC is taking to ensure data brokers are not collecting, buying, or selling sensitive location data that put people, particularly those seeking medical attention, at risk," they concluded. The senators asked officials to respond by June 10.

"I can confirm we received it but we do not have any additional comment," an FTC spokesperson told The Register. ®

Updated to add on May 24

Now Democrat lawmakers have written [PDF] to Google urging it to cease "unnecessarily collecting and retaining customer location data, to prevent that information from being used by right-wing prosecutors to identify people who have obtained abortions."

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