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A House panel will investigate the handling of reproductive health data

The House Oversight Committee is requesting information from specific data brokers and health apps.
Image: Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., speaks to crowds gathering for the Women's March on Oct. 2, 2021 in New York City.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., speaks to crowds gathering for the Women's March in New York City on Oct. 2.Yana Paskova / Getty Images file

A House investigative committee is seeking details from certain companies about how they handle personal reproductive and sexual health information in an effort to bolster data privacy for abortion seekers as more states ban the procedure.

House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and two other members sent letters to 10 data brokers and personal health apps seeking documentation about their practices for collecting and selling personal reproductive health data.

The Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion two weeks ago, sparking new concerns among privacy advocates over the potential misuse of data for those seeking abortions.

“The collection of sensitive data could pose serious threats to those seeking reproductive care as well as to providers of such care, not only by facilitating intrusive government surveillance, but also by putting people at risk of harassment, intimidation, and even violence,” Maloney wrote in the letter with Democratic Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois and Sara Jacobs of California.

“Geographic data collected by mobile phones may be used to locate people seeking care at clinics, and search and chat history referring to clinics or medication create digital bread crumbs revealing interest in an abortion," they added.

The lawmakers suggested that profiteers in states that reward citizens who enforce the bans could target people seeking abortion care "by purchasing location data from data brokers."

The letters were addressed to executives at five data companies, including SafeGraph, Digital Envoy and Another batch of letters was sent to executives of health apps that track fertility cycles, including Flo Health, Glow and BioWink GmbH.

The letters asked the companies to provide documents by July 21.

A study published last month by the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Internet Research indicated that 20 of the 23 frequently downloaded women’s health apps it examined shared user data with third parties and that just over half asked for explicit consent from their users.

Eight states have already banned abortion services since the Supreme Court's decision. Others have imposed new restrictions, with more bans scheduled to take effect in the coming weeks.

The congressional investigation also signals efforts by Democrats to shield access to data that could be used for punitive purposes in states where abortions are illegal.

In June, a Senate committee began considering a bill introduced by Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, to provide an individual right to have access to personal reproductive and sexual health data retained by regulated entities, including data from third parties, and to request its deletion.