Federal officials sue data company, saying it could reveal abortion seekers

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The Federal Trade Commission has sued data broker Kochava, claiming that it sells location information from millions of smartphones that could be used to track visits to abortion clinics and other sensitive sites.

After the Supreme Court’s June ruling overturning Roe v. Wadeprivacy advocates have warned that people’s digital trails could be used against them in abortion prosecutions. Cases have been built against women in the past using text messages and online searches.

In a complaint filed Monday, the FTC alleged that Idaho-based Kochava did not implement privacy controls that would prevent its customers from identifying device owners or tracing their movements to such places as health facilities, houses of worship and domestic violence shelters. Often, federal regulators said, people are unaware that their location data is being collected and sold.

“Where consumers seek out health care, receive counseling, or celebrate their faith is private information that shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a news release. “The FTC is taking Kochava to court to protect people’s privacy and halt the sale of their sensitive geolocation information.”

Kochava, which filed a preemptive lawsuit against the FTC this month, denied the allegations.

In year executive order last month, President Biden pledged to combat digital surveillance related to reproductive health-care services. He also said he had asked the chair of the FTC to “consider taking steps to protect consumers’ privacy when seeking information about and provision of reproductive health care services.” The lawsuit against Kochava offers a window into how the agency might attempt to do so.

Kochava, launched in 2011, sells data feeds to clients to help with advertising campaigns and analyze retail foot traffic. The company “provides its customers with massive amounts of precise geolocation data collected from consumers’ mobile devices,” the FTC said in its complaint.

FTC threatens to sue firm allegedly revealing abortion clinic visits

Until June, Kochava offered a free sample on the Amazon Web Services marketplace. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) The sample was made “publicly available with only minimal steps and no restrictions on usage,” the complaint said, and contained data from 61 million mobile devices.

“In just the data Kochava made available in the Kochava Data Sample, it is possible to identify a mobile device that visited a women’s reproductive health clinic and trace that mobile device to a single-family residence,” it continued, adding that employees of abortion clinics could be identified, too.

The data sample also includes mobile devices located at Jewish, Christian and Islamic places of worship, as well as a device that appeared to have visited a shelter that serves young, at-risk pregnant women or new mothers.

Selling such information “poses an unwarranted intrusion into the most private areas of consumers’ lives” — with consumers usually unaware, the complaint said. Information collected from smartphones “can be sold multiple times to companies that consumers have never heard of and never interacted with,” it added.

“Consumers have no insight into how this data is used — they do not, for example, typically know or understand that the information collected about them can be used to track and map their past movements and that inferences about them and their behaviors will be drawn from this information,” the complaint said.

Kochava general manager Brian Cox said in a prepared statement that his company complies with all rules and laws and stepped up its privacy controls before the legal proceedings. The company gets its data from third-party brokers that say smartphone users have agreed to the information being gathered, he said.

Cox claimed that the suit demonstrates the FTC “has a fundamental misunderstanding” of Kochava’s business.

“We hoped to have productive conversations that led to effective solutions with the FTC about these complicated and important issues and are open to them in the future,” he said. “Unfortunately the only outcome the FTC desired was a settlement that had no clear terms or resolutions and redefined the problem into a moving target. Real progress to improve data privacy for consumers will not be reached through flamboyant press releases and frivolous litigation.”

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