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FTC Sues Over Data Tracking That Could Expose Abortion Clinic Visits

Smartphone location tracking, a multibillion-dollar business in the United States, can reveal intimate details about Americans’ daily routines, including where they go for medical treatment, religious services or mental health advice.

Now the Federal Trade Commission is suing Kochava, a major location data broker, saying the company’s sale of geolocation information on tens of millions of smartphones could expose people’s private visits to places like clinics. of abortion and shelters for victims of domestic violence.

Such precise data “can be used to track consumers to sensitive locations, including places of religious worship, locations that can be used to infer an LGBTQ+ identification, domestic abuse shelters, medical facilities, and welfare and homeless shelters,” the agency said. FTC in a complaint presented on Monday.

The location details, the agency said, could be used to identify mobile phones that people brought with them on visits to an abortion clinic, as well as the dates and times of the visits. The data could also be used to track the locations of health professionals who perform abortions, the agency said.

Regulators have warned that consumers are not aware their location information is being sold, even though the practice could expose them to serious risks.

“The sale of such data represents an unwarranted intrusion into the most private areas of consumers’ lives and causes or is likely to cause substantial harm to consumers,” the FTC complaint said.

The lawsuit comes at a time of heightened concern about the privacy and security of reproductive health data. Civil rights groups have warned women seeking abortions in states that have restricted the practice that law enforcement agencies could obtain the location of their smartphones and use the data to prosecute them.

Last month, President Biden issued to an executive order promising to strengthen privacy protections for sensitive health data, including “combating digital surveillance related to reproductive health care services.” The order also urged the FTC to address deceptive uses of reproductive health information.

Headquartered in Sandpoint, Idaho, Kochava is a digital marketing and analytics company whose software enables app developers to track marketing campaigns. According to the FTC complaint, the company is also a location data broker “providing its customers with massive amounts of precise geolocation data collected from consumers’ mobile devices.”

To illustrate the potential risks to consumers, federal regulators described how easy it was to obtain a free set of location data for potential customers that Kochava offered on the AWS Marketplace. The sample set contained details related to more than 61 million mobile devices, the agency said.

But the complaint said Kochava had not employed controls to prevent entities from using the free data sample to identify individual consumers or track them to sensitive locations.

In fact, the agency said, the data set made it possible to identify a mobile device that had visited a reproductive health facility and trace that device back to a single-family home. The sample data also allowed mobile devices to be traced to Christian, Islamic and Jewish places of worship, according to the complaint.

In a preemptive lawsuit against the FTC filed earlier this month, Kochava denied that his location data could be used to identify people and track them to sensitive locations. He also rejected the FTC’s claim that the company did not employ controls to prevent its clients from tracking consumers to sensitive locations.

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