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Senate Democrats press tech firms on abortion-related location data

Concern is growing that cellphone tracking data could be used to target both patients and abortion providers if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

WASHINGTON — More than a dozen Senate Democrats are asking location data companies to provide information about any collection or sales of cellphone data tied to visits to abortion clinics.

The letters, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and first reported by NBC News, requested responses from the tech companies SafeGraph Inc. and Placer.ai by May 31.

“Especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, your company’s sale of such data—to virtually anyone with a credit card—poses serious dangers for all women seeking access to abortion services,” the senators wrote to SafeGraph, with similar wording in the letter to Placer.

Other Democrats who signed the letter include Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

The letter is the latest example of congressional Democrats’ preparations for the likely reversal of Roe v. Wade. Senate Democrats failed to pass legislation last week that would codify the 1973 landmark decision over stiff Republican opposition.

Image: Idaho Planned Parenthood
A procedure room at Planned Parenthood in Meridian, Idaho, on Dec, 14, 2021.Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images file

Lawmakers are trying to address privacy concerns around abortion as advocates warn that selling location data could pose risks to both patients and providers given the heightened tensions around the abortion debate.

Tracking data has also allowed advertisers to target women at clinics. In their letter, the senators cited technology that helped a Boston company send anti-abortion ads directly to women as they sat in clinic waiting rooms in 2016.

With the prospect that more states will further restrict abortion access, Democrats are zeroing in on the role big tech is expected to play in the battle for reproductive rights.

“Democrats need to use every tool possible to defend Americans’ right to an abortion and protect women’s health,” Warren told NBC News of the pressure campaign on data brokers. “These practices are deeply concerning and risk the safety of everyone seeking access to abortion care.”

SafeGraph and Placer have said they’ve taken steps to stop access to clinic data after several media reports highlighted its availability. SafeGraph said on its website that “in light of potential federal changes in family planning access, we’re removing Patterns data for locations classified as … ‘Family Planning Centers’ … to curtail any potential misuse of its data.”

Pacer.ai is reported to have removed users’ ability to search for visualized data related to Planned Parenthood that showed approximations for the homes of those who visited clinics.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.