from the the-check-is-coming-due-for-apathy dept
For decades now, privacy advocates warned we were creating a dystopia through our rampant over-collection and monetization of consumer data. And just as often, those concerns were greeted with calls of “consumers don’t actually care about privacy” from overly confident white guys in tech.
Nothing has exposed those flippant responses as ignorant quite like the post-Roe privacy landscape, in which basic female health data can now be weaponized to ruin the lives of those seeking abortions, or those trying to help women obtain foundational health care. Either by states looking to prosecute them, or individual right wing hardliners who often have easy, cheap access to the exact same information.
The latest case in point: Gizmodo did a deep dive into the largely unaccountable data broker space and discovered there are currently 32 different data brokers selling pregnancy status data on 2.9 billion consumer profiles.
Via browsing, app, promotion, and location data, those consumers are quickly deemed “actively pregnant” or “shopping for maternity products.” Another 478 million customer profiles are actively labeled “interested in pregnancy” or “intending to become pregnant.” As is usually the case, companies (the ones that could be identified) claimed it was no big deal because the data is “anonymized”:
In an email statement, a spokesperson for Mastercard said the company only uses “anonymized transaction data” to gather data at the postal code level. As shown in the image above, though, AlikeAudience claims it can create links between such anonymized IDs and users who “voluntarily” give up their data. Mastercard further said it limits how insights from data may be used, but did not clarify in which ways partners were limited.
Of course countless studies have shown how “anonymized” is a gibberish term in privacy, since “anonymized” users can be easily identified with just a few additional snippets of data. “Voluntarily” is also doing a lot of heavy lifting here, since companies that collect this data rely on overlong privacy statements nobody reads, assuming companies are even disclosing the data collection at all.
Again, it’s a matter of when, not if, authoritarian-leaning state leaders and vigilantes use this data to prosecute and harass those seeking abortions and their allies, even across state lines into states where abortion is legal:
Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist for the the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said these commercial data brokers are “a big risk” for abortion seekers since those companies “label people and put people into lists that makes it easier for someone who is coming at it like a fishing expedition to narrow down who they want to target and subject them to more scrutiny or and surveillance.”
American authoritarians aren’t being at all subtle about where this goes next. This is the era privacy advocates have been warning about for decades, built upon a generation of apathy toward data collection transparency and the need for meaningful rules and penalties. For decades we prioritized making money over consumer welfare, and the check is about to come due.
Will we do anything meaningful about it in response? Probably not!