FTC urged to probe Apple, Google for enabling ‘intense system of surveillance’

Ad tracking poses a privacy and security risk in post-Roe America, lawmakers warn

Democrat lawmakers want the FTC to investigate Apple and Google's online ad trackers, which they say amount to unfair and deceptive business practices and pose a privacy and security risk to people using the tech giants' mobile devices.

US Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and House Representative Sara Jacobs (D-CA) requested on Friday that the watchdog launch a probe into Apple and Google, hours before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, clearing the way for individual states to ban access to abortions. 

In the days leading up to the court's action, some of these same lawmakers had also introduced data privacy bills, including a proposal that would make it illegal for data brokers to sell sensitive location and health information of individuals' medical treatment.

Last month, 16 Democratic senators urged the FTC to crack down on data brokers buying and selling location information that could reveal visits to clinics.

And in the more recent letter [PDF] to the FTC, the four legislators warned that data collected by Apple and Google's smartphones, which includes customers' locations and web browsing history, could put women seeking abortions in a post-Roe America at higher risk. 

There is a concern that this information – from location data and web searches to non-encrypted email and chat messages – could be obtained by prosecutors and litigators to punish women in states where abortion is outlawed.

"Data brokers are already selling, licensing, and sharing the location information of people that visit abortion providers to anyone with a credit card," according to the letter. 

At press time, Apple and Google had not responded to The Register's request for comment.

And we're still waiting to hear back from these two tech giants, along with Meta, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter, about what they are doing to ensure that the data they collect isn't going to be used to build a legal case against women seeking to avoid forced birth, or those providing abortion support.

While some of these companies have agreed to cover their employees' out-of-state travel expenses to receive medical care, they have been silent on what, if anything, they will change in their data privacy policies now that abortion isn't constitutionally protected.

"Prosecutors in states where abortion becomes illegal will soon be able to obtain warrants for location information about anyone who has visited an abortion provider," the letter to the FTC continued. "Private actors will also be incentivized by state bounty laws to hunt down women who have obtained or are seeking an abortion by accessing location information through shady data brokers."

Apple and Google's iOS and Android mobile operating systems use advertising-specific tracking identifiers that third-party data brokers and their customers can buy and sell, and link this information to other consumer data. 

"While purportedly anonymous, these advertising identifiers are easily linkable back to individual users," the lawmakers wrote, adding that third-party firms sell databases that link these ad IDs to consumers' names, emails, home addresses numbers.

Apple and Google do allow folks to opt-out of tracking, though by not publicizing the effects of not doing so, the two companies have "exposed hundreds of millions of Americans to serious privacy harms," the letter said. 

"The FTC should investigate Apple and Google's role in transforming online advertising into an intense system of surveillance that incentivizes and facilitates the unrestrained collection and constant sale of Americans' personal data," the lawmakers advised. ®

Meanwhile... One of the most downloaded apps from the Apple App Store is a period tracking tool called Stardust that until Monday afternoon stated it would share users' "anonymized" information with law enforcement if requested "whether or not legally required." Following inquiries by Vice, the app's makers have revised their privacy policy to say they'll only hand over this info to third parties if legally required.

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