In the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion bans have spread across the country, and as recently as last week, abortion is a felony in Texas punishable with life in prison. But on Monday, the Federal Trade Commission announced a tiny bit of encouraging news.
The FTC is suing major data broker Kochava Inc. for allegedly selling location data that could track people going to abortion clinics, fertility clinics, addiction recovery centers, domestic violence shelters, and a number of other sensitive locations. The company has denied any wrongdoing.
“Kochava purchased sensitive geolocation data for hundreds of millions of mobile devices & sold this data in easily re-identifiable form, likely exposing people to threats of stigma, discrimination, and physical violence,” Lina Khan, the Chair of the FTC, wrote in a Twitter thread.
The suit further alleges that Kochava’s data services allowed the FTC to identify a visitor to an abortion clinic and find her home address, which could hypothetically expose her identity. The agency was also able to use the data to identify a woman who spent a night in a shelter for pregnant women or new mothers experiencing domestic violence. The FTC noted Kochava’s services can cost thousands of dollars, but its cost-free trial option is available with “minimal steps and no restrictions on usage.”
Caprea’s Essential Organic PH Cleanser is just $10 with promo code TEN. Normally $19, this foaming face wash is crafted with organic Monoi oil. It’s meant to target the production of oil secretion while protecting your skin against air pollution. Normally $19, you can save big on this richly-lathering face wash while supporting a brand that keeps the environment top of mind.
“The FTC has a fundamental misunderstanding of Kochava’s data marketplace business and other data businesses,” Brian Cox, the company’s general manager, said in a statement to Reuters. “Kochava operates consistently and proactively in compliance with all rules and laws.” Cox also accused the FTC of “flamboyant press releases and frivolous litigation,” according to CNN.
Like many tech companies, Kochava collects users’ mobile geolocation data for advertising and business purposes, but this collection poses an exponentially greater threat in a post-Roe America. Much of the data—including addiction recovery centers, given the frequent criminalization of pregnant people for alleged substance use—can be used as evidence in criminal cases against pregnant people who have or are accused of having abortions or losing their pregnancies.
“Where consumers seek out health care, receive counseling, or celebrate their faith is private information that shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder,” Samuel Levin, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a press release. “The FTC is taking Kochava to court to protect people’s privacy.”
Last month, in the face of scrutiny over their collection of users’ location data, Google announced it would automatically delete data collected from visits to sensitive locations like those listed above—but the company conceded it may continue to fulfill some requests from law enforcement. It received almost 12,000 geofence warrants in 2020 alone. As of July, two other data brokers, SafeGraph and Placer.ai, said they would stop selling the location data of users who visit abortion clinics.
The FTC’s suit is a vitally important step in protecting abortion seekers, especially considering how often and how easily personal data can be obtained to surveil and criminalize pregnant people—an increasingly common phenomenon even prior to the overturning of Roe. Tech companies and the U.S. government should be making it harder—not easier—for the public to access anyone’s private data.