Warner, Colleagues Urge FTC to Protect Data Privacy of Women Seeking Reproductive Healthcare

By: Office of U.S. Senate Warner

~ Senators express concern over data brokers selling personal location data related to abortion services and other family planning care ~

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Co-Chair of the Senate Cyber Caucus, joined Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) in urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to protect the data privacy of women seeking reproductive health care, following the Supreme Court’s leaked draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade. The senators expressed their concern over reports that data brokers are selling location data that allow purchasers to see how many people sought abortion services and other family planning care.

“We write to express serious concerns regarding recent reports identifying data brokers buying and selling location data that includes personal data related to family planning and abortion services,” the senators wrote. “Recent reports highlight data brokers selling location data that allows the buyer to see how many people visit a certain location and when, including how many people are seeking care at reproductive health clinics such as Planned Parenthood.”

“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. We appreciate your efforts to highlight the critical need for increased consumer privacy and danger of open data to further victimization. However additional measures need to be taken to protect personal data and ensure the privacy of women as they make decisions that should be between them and their doctors,” they continued.

In addition to Sens. Warner, Klobuchar, and Baldwin, the letter was also signed by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Dick Durbin (D-IL).

Sen. Warner has been a strong supporter of a woman’s right to choose. He recently cosponsored the Women’s Health Protection Act, which failed to advance in the Senate last week. As Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Warner has worked to address problematic data collection practices, sending a letter in 2020 to the FTC urging the agency to take action to address the troubling data collection and sharing practices of the mobile app Premom, which helps users track their fertility cycles to determine the best time to get pregnant.

Sen. Warner has also introduced numerous bills demanding increased data accountability and transparency, such as the Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data (DASHBOARD) Act, bipartisan legislation that would require data harvesting companies to tell consumers and financial regulators exactly what data they are collecting from consumers and how it is being leveraged by the platform for profit, and the Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Actbipartisan and bicameral legislation that would prohibit large online platforms from using deceptive user interfaces, known as “dark patterns,” to trick consumers into handing over their personal data and would prohibit these platforms from using features that result in compulsive usage by children.

A copy of the letter is available here and below. 

Dear Chair Khan,

We write to express serious concerns regarding recent reports identifying data brokers buying and selling location data that includes personal data related to family planning and abortion services. We respectfully request additional information on what steps the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is taking to ensure data brokers are not collecting, buying, or selling sensitive location data that put people, particularly those seeking medical attention, at risk.

We are concerned about online markets that sell and trade mobile phone location data. This data is often collected and sold by ordinary apps installed on a person’s smartphone, such as weather apps. The data is then bought and resold by data brokers. All of this information has historically been used to identify individuals. The estimated value of the location data market has been estimated at approximately $14 billion in 2021.

Recent reports highlight data brokers selling location data that allows the buyer to see how many people visit a certain location and when, including how many people are seeking care at reproductive health clinics such as Planned Parenthood. One report identified the purchase of data showing the number of people that visited over 600 Planned Parenthood locations in a week for just over $160.

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. 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.

We appreciate your efforts to highlight the critical need for increased consumer privacy and danger of open data to further victimization. However additional measures need to be taken to protect personal data and ensure the privacy of women as they make decisions that should be between them and their doctors. 

We respectfully request that you respond to the following questions by June 1:

·         What measures is the FTC taking to ensure individuals have the right to review and remove their information online, and assist them should their data be sold or they become victim to a breach? If so, please describe these measures.

·         How does the FTC plan to address mobile phone apps that are developed to collect and sell the location data? How is the FTC educating individuals about how to identify apps 

that collect and sell their location data?

·         What is the FTC doing to coordinate with the Department of Justice, states and localities, health care providers and private stakeholders to prevent data brokers and others from gaining access to the personal information of women and their healthcare decisions? 

·         Does the FTC need additional resources to better protect women from having their personal location data bought and disseminated by data brokers? 

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to working with you to address this threat to privacy and safety.

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