Wyden: Data Broker Used Abortion Clinic Visitor Location Data To Help Send Targeted Misinformation To Vulnerable Women


from the the-warning-siren-can’t-get-any-louder dept

Every few weeks for the last 20 years there’s been a massive scandal involving some company, telecom, data broker, or app maker over-collecting your detailed personal location data, failing to secure it, then selling access to that information to any nitwit with a nickel. And despite the added risks this creates in the post-Roe authoritarian era, Congress refuses to pass a real privacy law or rein in reckless data brokers.

The latest case in point: Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to the SEC and FTC this week urging them to investigate and punish a data broker that collected the sensitive location data of more than 600 visitors to abortion clinics. A Wyden staff investigation found the broker then turned around and sold that data to an anti-abortion group that used it to send “targeted misinformation” to vulnerable women:

“As a result of the Dobbs decision, which reversed Roe v. Wade and allowed states to criminalize abortion, privacy of location data has become increasingly important. Wyden began investigating a data broker named Near Intelligence in 2023, after the Wall Street Journal reported that an anti-abortion organization named The Veritas Society used cell phone location data shared with online advertising companies to target misinformation about reproductive health to people who visited Planned Parenthood locations in Wisconsin.” 

The full letter has more detail.

Shortly after Roe fell, privacy activists and a handful of senators warned very clearly how our longstanding refusal to regulate data brokers would result in sensitive behavior and location data being weaponized by extremists, activists and state prosecutors seeking to punish women (and those that help them).

Reporters made it clear how it was easy and cheap to buy granular location data on abortion clinic visitors with little discernment as to who was buying the data and what was being done with it.

The congressional response was to do jack shit, outside of trying to distract everybody with some performative and myopic whining about TikTok.

Wyden is once again (justly) warning regulators and his colleagues in Congress that the hour is getting late when it comes to getting ahead of this obvious problem:

“If a data broker could track Americans’ cell phones to help extremists target misinformation to people at hundreds of Planned Parenthood locations across the United States, a right-wing prosecutor could use that same information to put women in jail,” Wyden said. “Federal watchdogs should hold the data broker accountable for abusing Americans’ private information. And Congress needs to step up as soon as possible to ensure extremist politicians can’t buy this kind of sensitive data without a warrant.”

We’ve long noted that the federal government refuses to regulate data brokers or pass a federal internet-era privacy law for two reasons. One: corrupt politicians clearly believe making gobs of money is more important than market health or public safety. Two: the federal government exploits this corrupt dysfunction to purchase this data and avoid having to get traditional warrants.

The FTC under Lina Khan has been doing some good work in cracking down on a handful of data brokers, but the agency lacks the staff or resources to truly tackle the problem at the scale it’s operating at. It’s essential for Congress to act by passing a privacy law and regulating data brokers, but corruption (fueled by lobbying by numerous industries with near-bottomless budgets) prevents it from happening.

Yet when the press covers this whole mess (the Politico story on Wyden’s letter is a perfect example) they neither ask nor answer why the federal government has spent the better part of two decades tripping over its own ass. There’s no mention of corruption, or the government being utterly incompetent when it comes to doing even the bare minimum. The problem simply exists, utterly free of causation.

So we’ve somehow normalized the dysfunction and entered this holding pattern waiting for a privacy scandal so grotesque and harmful (potentially even fatal) that a corrupt Congress is forced to finally shake off its apathy and pass meaningful reforms. I’m not excited to see what this disaster actually looks like.

Filed Under: abortion, abortion clinic, data brokers, ftc, location data, privacy, reproductive care, ron wyden, scandals, sec, security, surveillance

Companies: near intelligence, planned parenthood, the veritas society

Las Vegas News Magazine

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