SafeGraph Stops Selling Location Data Of Abortion Clinic Visitors, But…

from the drop-in-the-bucket dept

A few days ago, Motherboard revealed they were able to purchase the location data of visitors to Planned Parenthood clinics for just $160 from a company named SafeGraph. While SafeGraph refused to comment at the time, they’ve since written a blot post announcing they’ll be ending the practice. But not without spending much of the blog downplaying obvious potential harm:

there are always extreme hypothetical corner cases, and in some cases these are worth actively preventing.

In light of potential federal changes in family planning access, we’re removing Patterns data for locations classified as NAICS code 621410 (‘Family Planning Centers’) from our self-serve “shop” and API to curtail any potential misuse of its data. 

Like the last dozen companies caught in location data scandals, SafeGraph implies this was all an over-reaction because they saw no examples of the data being abused (not that they spent much time verifying identities or looking) and individual identities weren’t exposed due to aggregation and anonymization:

SafeGraph also has a Patterns dataset that shows how groups of people interact with a place (fully aggregated and anonymized).  SafeGraph has always committed to the highest level of privacy practices ensuring individual privacy is NEVER compromised.  We use differential privacy to ensure anonymity. 

But there’s been just an absolute parade of quality studies showing how “anonymization” is meaningless, and user identities can be teased out of such datasets with only a modicum of additional data from other sources. That companies just keep pretending these studies don’t exist is both absurd and insulting. SafeGraph also sold this data with no user identity verification.

Obviously, the harm here is that abortion (and helping those seeking abortion) is criminalized in numerous states, and this data becomes useful for both law enforcement and politicians — but also potentially violent authoritarians who feel harassment efforts have been validated by an extremely unpopular right wing Supreme Court decision.

This cycle we’re in, where a company gets caught being cavalier with user location data, then only sheepishly backs away after a news outlet discovers the practice (while insisting they didn’t actually do anything wrong), isn’t working. There’s very often no meaningful penalty, no third party confirmation that the company has changed anything it claims to have changed, and no real incentive for other actors to stop misbehaving, since the financial cost is minimal to nonexistent and the reputation hit fleeting.

SafeGraph stopping this collection and sale doesn’t stop the countless other data brokers, adtech companies, telecoms, app makers, and big tech giants that are also routinely cavalier with user location and other data — including abortion clinic visitor data (in fact it took Vice all of a day to find another broker doing this same thing). All of this has been greenlit by regulators and lawmakers soaked in campaign contributions.

We’ve built a massive interconnected ecosystem of rampant data over-collection and monetization with little to no meaningful oversight, whether we’re talking about your broadband and wireless provider, prayer and meditation apps, or period tracking apps. This data has already been abused by a wide variety of cops, people posing as cops, criminals, stalkers, and others. Believing it won’t also be abused by a surging U.S. authoritarian right is dangerous wishful thinking.

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Comments on “SafeGraph Stops Selling Location Data Of Abortion Clinic Visitors, But…”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Also of note is Veraset– which is described as a “spin-off” of SafeGraph. This Quartz article suggests that Veraset does the collection and SafeGraph does analysis.

I’ve never heard of COVID-washing before.

Be really interested in finding out which apps are doing the sharing to these companies.

I suppose that paying attention to the permissions granted when you install the app might be an (adequate?) defense here.

Anonymous Coward says:

First, they came for the Fitbit wearers...

“Abortion clinic data” is just the cause célèbre.

Do you think the government – or technologically savvy thieves, where different – would not gather location data to determine when best to visit your house, be it to serve warrants, place espionage gear, or simply burgle?

Track your movements, to find the best time for the scruffy anonymous van to come up alongside you and haul you away for interrogation, imprisonment, or financial gain?

Cattress (profile) says:

Slightly off topic, but please don’t equate Plan B with medical or surgical abortion. Plan B delays ovulation, it is not the same thing as the two drug protocol used to end pregnancy. Plan B can be purchased generally over the counter, though I don’t doubt a number of states still have unnecessary restrictions because of poorly informed legislatures. I’m not saying you are poorly informed or trying to insult you, it’s just very important to be precise with language. Trying to point out the hypocrisy of these conservatives isn’t going to be effective if we out a bunch of women who bought treatment for yeast infections, condoms or sanitary products.
And while I agree that conservatives are ignoring the needs of their constituents and even their own family, I highly doubt invading the privacy of countless women would change anything more than the freely known data regarding how beneficial SNAP benefits and free school lunches are that they continue to fight against. And even if we could parse the data to only point out the hypocrites, I still have a problem with collecting the data at all. Everyone deserves to have their right to privacy respected, and turn about is fair play. Weaponizing data is like nuclear war, everyone loses.

Christenson says:

Re: The data *is* already being weaponized...

The question is how to bring those effects to those privileged enough to have the power to do something about it in a way that makes them want to do something about it.

It happened in the 1980s with check clearing, where banks clearly were sitting on checks for weeks at a time, holding the float, and congress imposed rules about funds availability.

I’m casting about for ideas here; for this discussion there’s little difference between Plan B and RU-486 and an abortion; these are simply things with emotional charges that tend to reveal certain politicians not actually acting on their public rhetoric.

Information is already being weaponized; it’s not at all a coincidence that a rather large number of Russian generals have died in this Ukrainian war.

Naughty Autie says:

Re: Re:

The question is how to bring those effects to those privileged enough to have the power to do something about it in a way that makes them want to do something about it.

Easy. Just send letters to Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), John Kennedy (R-La.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), and Mark Warner (D-Va), David N. Cicilline (D-RI), and Ken Buck (R-CO) telling them that Big Tech is putting the privacy of American citizens at risk and asking them to introduce a bill with a version of the GDPR on it. Of course, given these individuals’ lack of knowledge of the importance of encryption, amongst other things, don’t expect it to go too well.

Cattress (profile) says:

I believe your intentions come from a good place and I understand the point you want to make. But because Plan B is fundamentally different than Ella, in that it does not and cannot end a pregnancy, and that it is sold without a prescription in the same section of as any store along with family planning and sanitary feminine products, this data point isn’t going to be anymore relevant than any other that can be de-anonymized and linked to a politician. You would need more than location data to determine that Plan B was the item purchased, and given the amount of confusion that already exists around Plan B, it’s not worth damaging the reputation of a still novel form of contraception. You simply can’t prove the hypocrisy with this data set.
Abortion rights and data privacy are not issues I think can be effectively tackled when tied together among the conservative wing. I actually think they would be happy to mandate collection and turning such data over to government goons.
Politicians rarely feel the pains of the average person,they act based on political pain. IE, campaign contributions and re-election. So their constituents would be the ones that need to feel the impact of data exploitation so that they would apply the pressure to fix the problem in order to get re-elected.

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