Amid rising social tension in the United States over reproductive freedom, a company that analyzes location data on abortion clinics stopped distributing its findings after a critical press report.
What’s new: SafeGraph, a company that analyzes consumer behavior based on location data, provided anonymized data on locations of Planned Parenthood, a chain of clinics that offer family-planning services including abortion, Vice reported. After the article was published, the company removed data related to Planned Parenthood citing the risk that it might be misused.
How it works: Based in Denver, SafeGraph purchases anonymized location data gathered by third-party apps installed on consumers’ phones. It uses machine learning algorithms to estimate where consumers live, which buildings they visit, how long they remain at each location. Customers can purchase reports that show foot traffic with respect to individual companies, type of business, or commercial category (such as “family planning centers”).
- Reporters purchased a week’s worth of data on 600 Planned Parenthood locations across the U.S. for around $160.
- They received information on when consumers visited these facilities, how long they stayed, where they traveled afterwards, and areas (as small as a city block) where they reside.
- Studies show that anonymize data can be re-identified. Moreover, anonymized and aggregated data can motivate bad actors to target people for harassment, whether or not they are actual subjects of the data. A recent Texas law incentivizes such harassment by offering a $10,000 bounty to citizens who successfully sue suspected abortion patients and anyone who helps them.
Behind the news: Activists, politicians, and others are using data collected by mobile apps to model and track individual behavior in increasingly invasive ways.
- Last summer, The Pillar, a newsletter that covers the Catholic church, reported that a priest was homosexual based on data from the dating app Grindr that tracked his visits to gay bars and private residences. The priest resigned following the report.
- In 2020, Vice revealed that the U.S. military purchased data from X-Mode (now known as Outlogic), a geolocation service that collected data from apps including Muslim dating and prayer apps.
- A 2018 investigation by The New York Times found at least 75 companies that obtain, analyze, and repackage location data.
Why it matters: As the political winds in the U.S. shift against abortion, women who consider or undergo the procedure, doctors who perform it, and clinic workers who support reproductive services are increasingly at risk of harassment and violence. Tracking their movements, analyzing the details, and distributing the analysis far and wide only increases the risks.
We’re thinking: Personal data is revealing. Coupled with machine learning, it can be revealing on a grand scale. We commend SafeGraph for withholding data about Planned Parenthood, but the business of analytics calls for a much more proactive stance. Companies that profit from personal data have a special responsibility to protect privacy and provide information only to customers with a legitimate interest.