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U.S. government sues Idaho data company it says tracks people at abortion clinics

The suit appeared to be the first of its kind filed by the Federal Trade Commission since the Supreme Court’s ruling in June overturning Roe v. Wade.

The Federal Trade Commission sued an Idaho-based data company Monday, accusing it of selling location data from hundreds of millions of mobile devices that could be used to track people at abortion clinics and other sensitive locations. 

The FTC, the government’s main privacy watchdog, said in the lawsuit filed in federal court in Idaho that the company, Kochava Inc., was unfairly selling sensitive data in violation of federal law. 

“The FTC is taking Kochava to court to protect people’s privacy and halt the sale of their sensitive geolocation information,” Samuel Levine, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement

The lawsuit asks the court for a permanent injunction and any additional relief the court determines proper.

Sandpoint, Idaho-based Kochava said that the suit had no merit. It said the company complies with all laws, and that the FTC had a fundamental misunderstanding of its business. 

“Real progress to improve data privacy for consumers will not be reached through flamboyant press releases and frivolous litigation,” Brian Cox, general manager of the company’s online data marketplace known as the Kochava Collective, said in a statement. 

Cox accused the FTC of spreading “misinformation” about data privacy and circumventing Congress, which is weighing a federal data protection law. He said, though, that the company was open to settlement talks if they resulted in “effective solutions.”

Kochava Inc. in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Kochava Inc. in Sandpoint, Idaho.Google maps

The suit appeared to be the first of its kind filed by the FTC since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June overturning Roe v. Wade, the 49-year-old precedent that guaranteed abortion rights nationwide. 

“This action is part of the @FTC’s work to use all of our tools to protect Americans’ privacy,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said on Twitter. 

Earlier this month, the FTC said it would begin considering new rules to expand online privacy protections. And shortly after, Kochava sued the FTC, saying the agency had wrongly threatened the company with a lawsuit over its practices. 

Cox said in his statement that the company was now in the process of voluntarily implementing a new tool to block location data from sensitive locations.

He also said that Kochava sources its data from companies that say they get people’s consent.

“Kochava sources 100% of the geo data in our data marketplace from third party data brokers all of whom represent that the data comes from consenting consumers,” he said. 

The FTC said Monday that people are often unaware that their location data is purchased and shared by Kochava, and that they have no control over its sale or use.

The FTC has investigated mobile advertising companies before, including business-to-business data companies that consumers may never have heard of. A Singapore-based company agreed to pay $950,000 in civil penalties in 2016.

The commission is hosting an online public forum on Sept. 8 to hear public feedback on the regulation of commercial data brokers. Anyone can sign up to speak, Khan said.

Some people have opposed the FTC’s stepped-up privacy enforcement. Republican FTC member Noah Phillips said in a statement this month that the commission should not act without further authorization from Congress.