Technology

Democratic senators concerned about phone location data being used to track people seeking abortions

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar speaks during a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for a majority of the court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision later this year, in Washington, D.C., May 3, 2022.
Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

A group of 16 Democratic senators urged the Federal Trade Commission in a letter on Wednesday to protect data privacy for people seeking abortions or other reproductive health care.

The letter highlights the potential far-reaching impacts of the Supreme Court’s anticipated decision reversing Roe v. Wade. Politico reported earlier this month on a draft decision that would overturn the decades-old ruling protecting the right to abortion, and Chief Justice John Roberts later confirmed its authenticity, though a final ruling has yet to be made public.

The draft decision raised concerns about how undoing Roe could impact privacy protections, given that the original decision was largely based around the right to privacy between a pregnant person and their doctor. Exacerbating concerns is the fact that the U.S. does not currently have a federal privacy law, though some states such as California have their own protections.

In the letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan, senators led by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., expressed “serious concerns” about recent reports about data brokers buying and selling location data related to abortion services, pointing to a recent Vice article. They said such data could come from ordinary places such as weather apps, where consumers may not expect their data to be sold.

“In light of reports that the Supreme Court is set to overrule Roe vs. Wade, we are concerned about the privacy of women making decisions that should be between them, their families, and their doctors, as they have for more than five decades,” the lawmakers wrote. “Should the Court’s final decision match the leaked opinion, thirteen states could immediately ban abortion and over a dozen others are likely to criminalize it. Banning and criminalizing abortion in parts of our country could create added risks to those seeking family planning services in states where abortions remain legal.”

Already in states such as Texas and Oklahoma, access to abortions has been extremely limited, and new laws even allow private citizens to sue abortion providers or those that help them access such services (potentially including rideshare drivers).

The senators asked the FTC to outline measures it’s taking to make sure consumers are able to review and remove personal information online, ways it would address mobile phone apps that collect and sell location data and how it’s coordinating with the Department of Justice, states and health care providers to prevent data broker access to such information. They also asked the FTC, which many lawmakers believe has been historically underfunded, if it needs additional resources to keep such personal information from being bought and sold by data brokers.

An FTC spokesperson confirmed the agency received the letter but did not provide further comment.

WATCH: Protesters amass outside the Supreme Court after leaked doc suggests justices to overturn Roe v. Wade

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