Tracking of Planned Parenthood Visits ‘Should Terrify Every Single American’

Sen. Ron Wyden warns that “if a data broker could track Americans’ cellphones to help extremists” send ads to clinic visitors, “a right-wing prosecutor could use that same information to put women in jail.”

By Jessica Corbett. Published 2-14-2024 by Common Dreams

Planned Parenthood- Manitowoc, WI. Photo: Michael Steeber/flickr/CC

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and privacy rights advocates this week are sounding the alarm about an anti-abortion group using cellphone location data to send misinformation to people who visited hundreds of Planned Parenthood clinics across the country.

“If a data broker could track Americans’ cellphones to help extremists target misinformation to people at hundreds of Planned Parenthood locations across the United States, a right-wing prosecutor could use that same information to put women in jail,” Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement Tuesday.

“Federal watchdogs should hold the data broker accountable for abusing Americans’ private information,” he added. “And Congress needs to step up as soon as possible to ensure extremist politicians can’t buy this kind of sensitive data without a warrant.”

Since the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade with its June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, anti-choice state policymakers have ramped up attacks on abortion rights, elevating concerns about patient privacy.

Wyden explained in a Tuesday letter that his office launched an investigation after The Wall Street Journal reported last May that the Veritas Society, a nonprofit established by Wisconsin Right to Life, hired the advertising agency Recrue Media for an anti-abortion ad campaign targeting clinic visitors, whose locations were tracked by the data broker Near Intelligence.

As Wyden wrote to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chair Gary Gensler:

My staff spoke with Steven Bogue, the co-founder and managing principal of Recrue Media on May 19, 2023, who revealed that to target these ads, his employees used Near’s website to draw a line around the building and parking lot of each targeted facility. On May 26, 2023, my staff spoke with Near’s chief privacy officer, Jay Angelo, who confirmed that, until the summer of 2022, the company did not have any technical controls in place to prevent its customers targeting people who visited sensitive facilities, such as reproductive health clinics.

On a webpage that has since been taken down, but was saved by the Internet Archive, the Veritas Society stated that in 2020 in Wisconsin alone, it delivered 14.3 million ads to people who visited abortion clinics, and “served ads to those devices across the women’s social pages, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.” The scale of this invasive surveillance-enabled ad campaign remains unknown, however, Mr. Bogue told my staff that the company used Near to target ads to people who had visited 600 Planned Parenthood locations in the lower 48 states.

Justin Sherman, who studies data brokers at Duke University, told Politico that “this is the largest targeting campaign we’ve seen to date against reproductive health clinics based on brokered data.”

Wyden also highlighted Journal reporting from October about Near selling location data to defense contractors that resold it to U.S. Defense Department and intelligence agencies. He wrote that Angelo, the privacy officer, “confirmed that the company had for three years sold location data to the defense contractor AELIUS Exploitation Technologies.”

“Mr. Angelo revealed that after joining Near in June of 2022, he conducted a review of the company’s practices and discovered that the company was facilitating the sale of location data to the U.S. government that had been obtained without user consent,” the senator continued, noting the removal of “misleading statements” from Near’s website.

“The former executives that led Near during the period in which it engaged in these egregious violations of Americans’ privacy are now under criminal investigation, according to a statement made by the company’s lawyer during a December 11, 2023, bankruptcy hearing. But prosecuting those individuals for engaging in financial fraud will not address Near’s corporate abuses,” Wyden argued, urging the FTC and SEC to take various actions over the company’s “outrageous conduct” that “recklessly harmed the public and investors.”

Wyden’s letter comes as the Republican-controlled U.S. House plans to take up the Reforming Intelligence and Securing America Act, which would reform Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), spying powers temporarily extended late last year that agencies—especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—have abused.

Section 702 only allows warrantless surveillance targeting foreigners located outside the United States, but Americans’ data is also swept up, and privacy advocates within and outside of Congress—including Wyden—have long been pushing for warrant protections, a key issue in this week’s debates about the Republican-led reform bill.

Responding to Wyden’s letter, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that “this is outrageous. Americans’ most personal private health data is being bought and sold for politics. Major surveillance changes are needed. i.e. If Congress acts, reforms from our Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act must be part of a FISA reform.”

Reintroduced by LofgrenWyden, and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers last July, that bill would require the U.S. government to get a court order compelling data brokers to disclose information as well as bar law enforcement and intelligence agencies from buying data on people in the U.S. and Americans abroad if it was obtained from a user’s account or device, or deceptive practices.

Privacy rights campaigners and experts also responded to Wyden’s letter with renewed calls for closing the data broker loophole.

“That data brokers can track people visiting Planned Parenthood is terrifying enough. That law enforcement agencies can simply buy this type of sensitive data—rather than getting a warrant—is even worse,” said Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Security Project. “This Thursday, Congress must vote to close the loophole for law enforcement purchases from data brokers. The government shouldn’t be able to buy its way around the Fourth Amendment.”

The organizations Demand Progress and EPIC concurred in social media posts sharing Politico‘s reporting on the letter.

“The continued sale of our most sensitive information to and by shady data brokers not only fuels harmful surveillance advertising systems, but enables government agencies—from local police departments to state attorneys general to the FBI—to sidestep the Fourth Amendment,” said EPIC counsel Sara Geoghegan in a statement. “We urgently need to rein in data brokers and enact comprehensive privacy rules to protect us from these grave harms in the post-Roe era we live in.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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