Clinic business

The phones know who went to an abortion clinic. Who will they tell?

In May, shortly after the Supreme Court’s draft opinion quashing Roe v. Wade went public, location data specialist Tapestri Inc. received unusual requests from two companies.

Each wanted to buy mobile device data that would reveal users who had visited abortion clinics along the Illinois-Missouri border, said Tapestri chief executive Walter Harrison.

Tapestri declined both requests, saying it does not retain this data. “In our view, that’s the best way to go: just don’t collect it at all,” Harrison said.

The Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which was followed by a flurry of state laws banning or restricting abortion, draws attention to the more than $10 billion market for cellphone location data. The industry is made up of a range of companies, from large technology companies to data aggregators and brokers who buy and sell information. Every day, connected devices such as smartphones and fitness trackers collect a trail of location data that eventually ends up in this under-the-radar market. The data is often used for commercial purposes such as personalizing ads or apps.

Since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, companies in the location data industry have been examining and, in some cases, revising the way they process data about visits to abortion clinics. Some voluntarily agree not to sell the data or say they will store it in a way that hides the location. Some, like Tapestri, which pays consumers to share their anonymized location history, remove any health-related location information they deem sensitive.

Opponents of the court’s decision and privacy advocates say personal reproductive health data could be made public or used to build a legal case against people who request or offer abortions. “These kinds of requests for user data are going to rise sharply,” said Jennifer Lynch, director of surveillance litigation at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.

A CEO of a location data company said privacy advocates’ fears are overblown, in part because the data is often inaccurate and could be challenged in court. Some industry leaders and researchers say restricting data collection and use could prohibit other uses, such as studying how people access health care.

About a dozen states have enacted laws that ban many or most abortions, and several more are expected to adopt similar measures. A few states, including Texas, have offered financial incentives for people to bring civil lawsuits against those suspected of assisting with abortions.

So far, there have been few, if any, criminal or civil investigations since abortion bans were enacted by states, in part because abortion providers in those states have generally stopped working. carry out the procedure in case of ambiguity as to its legality.

The Supreme Court did more than overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to ban abortion. The court showed how it views rights that are not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. WSJ’s Jess Bravin explains. Illustration: Ryan Trefes

Concerns over the collection and storage of reproductive health data are the latest challenge for the location data industry, which in recent years has come under intense scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators. regulators. In recent years, data privacy laws in California and other states have imposed new restrictions on companies, such as requiring companies to give consumers the right to opt out of the sale of their data.

The Federal Trade Commission said last month that it will strictly enforce laws governing the collection, use and sharing of sensitive consumer data. “The misuse of mobile location and health information, including reproductive health data, exposes consumers to significant harm,” wrote Kristin Cohen, acting associate director of the Privacy Division of privacy and identity of the commission.

Without clear industry data regulations for abortion clinic location data, individual companies are figuring out how to respond to the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Alphabet Inc.

Google recently said it would automatically remove visits to abortion clinics from its users’ location history.

Apple Inc.

says it minimizes the collection of personal data and most location data is stored in a way the company can’t access it. It has no way to access data from the Health and Maps app for people using updated operating systems and cannot provide such data in response to government requests, the company says.

The vast location data ecosystem includes many other lesser-known companies that take a different approach. A trade group for some of these companies, the Network Advertising Initiative, announced a new set of voluntary standards for member companies in June, two days before the Dobbs ruling was released.

Participating companies, including Foursquare Labs Inc., Cuebiq Inc. and PlaceIQ by Precisely Inc., have agreed not to use, sell or share precise location data about visits to sensitive locations, including abortion clinics , except to comply with a legal obligation.

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Some privacy experts have said the companies’ promises won’t be enough to protect people who seek or perform abortions. “They really shouldn’t be collecting unnecessary data in the first place,” said Sara Geoghegan, legal officer at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “And some kind of Scout’s Promise of Honor does not override enforced privacy rights or legal limits on data processing.”

Foursquare, Cuebiq, and PlaceIQ receive raw latitude and longitude coordinates from the many smartphone apps that incorporate location-based technology, then combine that information with a directory of places to try to determine whether someone has visited a restaurant, movie theater, or another specific company.

Under the new standards, when contact information points to an abortion clinic or other sensitive location, such as a religious place of worship or a military base, companies won’t make that connection in their databases. They can still store the raw coordinates of places visited by users. Representatives of several other companies said they would follow similar practices.

Some users of abortion clinic location data claim that restricting the collection and use of the data would disrupt research projects. Location data company Gravy Analytics Inc., an NAI member that chose not to follow the new standards, wrote in a blog post that a “blackout” of mobility data for sensitive locations would remove valuable data used in analytical and research work.

Martin Andersen, an associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, relied on mobile location data provided by SafeGraph Inc. to study how Texas residents accessed abortion services after the entry into force of the new state law. Mr. Andersen downloaded aggregated and anonymized data from SafeGraph for free.

In May 2022, SafeGraph removed data on family planning clinics from its self-service data offerings. It did so “in light of potential federal changes in access to family planning,” SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman wrote in a blog post.

“We recognize that our decision to remove Patterns for Family Planning Clinics could negatively impact this valuable research, but we believe it is the right decision given the current climate,” Hoffman wrote.

Cuebiq plans to legally challenge any court order or law enforcement request regarding reproductive health care, a Cuebiq spokesperson said.

Stacey Gray, director of legislative research and analysis at the Future of Privacy Forum, said companies that keep raw geographic coordinates of user visits would still be subject to requests from law enforcement.

Additionally, she said, it could be difficult for companies to determine whether a request from law enforcement relates to abortion. Authorities could simply say they are seeking information about a person suspected of wrongdoing, without specifying that abortion was the alleged offence.

Location data has already been used to target abortion seekers. In 2017, the Massachusetts Attorney General alleged that Copley Advertising LLC violated consumer protection laws by serving anti-abortion ads to women sitting in abortion clinic waiting rooms and then running ads on women’s mobile devices for up to 30 days. Copley settled the allegations and agreed not to practice such targeting in Massachusetts.

Location data is just one of many sources of data that could be used to build a case against those requesting or providing abortions. Other such data includes user text messages and search histories. Still other data is commercially available in the digital advertising market, such as menstrual history and anonymized data about a person’s medical procedures.

Write to Patience Haggin to [email protected]

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