'Scandal-plagued' data broker tracked visits to '600 Planned Parenthood locations'

Anti-abortion group said to have used that monitoring to push ad campaign

A pro-life group was able to specifically target visitors to nearly 600 Planned Parenthood facilities in 48 states in America with anti-abortion ads using location data from a broker called Near Intelligence, according to US Senator Ron Wyden.

In a letter [PDF] making this allegation to the FTC and SEC, Wyden (D-OR) urged the watchdogs to probe Near and to make sure all the location data it holds on Americans is "promptly destroyed."

"Near is a scandal-plagued location data broker," Wyden argued.

The India-based outfit, which filed for bankruptcy in December and is selling its business, did not respond to The Register's inquiries.

According to Wyden, a Wall Street Journal article in May prompted his office to investigate Near. At the time, it was reported that the Veritas Society – a nonprofit established by Wisconsin anti-abortion group Right to Life – used Near's geofencing data to show targeted anti-abortion mobile ads to people who visited Planned Parenthood clinics.

The ad campaign ran from November 2019 through summer 2022, which is when the US Supreme Court issued its ruling that allowed states to criminalize abortion – Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

The ruling hasn't stopped applications and services – such as online pharmacies that sell morning-after pills, and fertility-tracking apps – from collecting women's pregnancy statuses and geolocation, and then sharing this info with brokers, ad networks, even the cops in states where ending a pregnancy is now illegal, and other third parties.

In the background of all this, the FTC is suing data brokers for selling sensitive location data, including visits to reproductive health clinics, which it warned could be used to track down and prosecute anyone seeking an abortion.

The Veritas Society is said to have hired advertising agency Recrue Media to place the targeted anti-abortion ads.

According to Wyden's letter on Tuesday:

My staff spoke with Steven Bogue, the co-founder and managing principal of Recrue Media on May 19, 2023, who revealed that to target these ads, his employees used Near's website to draw a line around the building and parking lot of each targeted facility. On May 26, 2023, my staff spoke with Near's chief privacy officer, Jay Angelo, who confirmed that, until the summer of 2022, the company did not have any technical controls in place to prevent its customers targeting people who visited sensitive facilities, such as reproductive health clinics.

On a web page that has since been taken down, but was saved by the Internet Archive, The Veritas Society stated that in 2020 in Wisconsin alone, it delivered 14.3 million ads to people who visited abortion clinics, and “served ads to those devices across the women’s social pages, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.” The scale of this invasive surveillance-enabled ad campaign remains unknown, however, Mr Bogue told my staff that the company used Near to target ads to people who had visited 600 Planned Parenthood locations in the lower 48 states.

Recrue Media did not respond to The Register's inquiries. Neither did Wisconsin Right to Life, nor Veritas Society.

Near also allegedly sold US citizens' location data to Uncle Sam – including the Pentagon, its intelligence agencies, and defense contractor AELIUS Exploitation Technologies. 

"[Near chief privacy officer] Mr Angelo revealed that although the company's contract with AELIUS permitted it to resell data and explicitly referenced the use of data for national security related purposes, Near had for years published statements on its website stating that the company did not sell data to, as Mr Angelo described it, 'defense or governments,'" Wyden's letter claimed.

As recently as late last year, Near was still selling US residents' location data without their consent, the senator added, citing an October 18 call with Angelo, during which the privacy boss reportedly said the broker had stopped selling data about Europeans.

Near, according to Wyden's letter, is already under investigation by the SEC, allegedly related to its transferring "illegal EU data twice per day" to the US government.

Wyden wants the SEC to broaden its investigation into Near and consider whether its statements constitute securities fraud. He also urged the FTC to "intervene in Near's bankruptcy proceedings to ensure that all location and device data held by Near about Americans is promptly destroyed and is not sold off, including to another data broker."

In addition to being yet another report of data brokers allegedly tracking, and then selling, sensitive location information, Wyden's investigation also comes as US lawmakers debate legislation that would prohibit the government from buying citizens' data without first obtaining a warrant.

We need Congress and the states to ban police from buying location information from brokers, and to enact real consumer data privacy legislation

"This is why House members should vote to pass the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act tomorrow when it goes to the floor," Kia Hamadanchy, senior policy counsel at the ACLU, told The Register on Wednesday. 

That legislation would close a loophole that allows government agencies to obtain people's location data and other personal information without a warrant by buying it from data brokers. 

"It has implications on issues like abortion," Hamadanchy argued. "The Wyden disclosures are confirmation that the data is definitely out there, and people are definitely using it. It's not that far of a step to think a state attorney general, in Alabama or Idaho [or other states where abortion is illegal] would want to buy this data and see who is visiting Planned Parenthood."

EFF privacy litigation director Adam Schwartz told The Register he echoed the ACLU's data privacy concerns.

"EFF thanks Senator Wyden for his continued leadership in exposing the privacy and other harms of data brokers harvesting our location information and selling it to the highest bidders, including police and anti-abortion advocates," Schwartz declared.

"Now more than ever, we need Congress and the states to ban police from buying location information from brokers, and to enact real consumer data privacy legislation." ®

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