Could You Be Targeted With Anti-Abortion Ads If You Go to a Planned Parenthood?

Sen. Ron Wyden alleges a data broker tracked people’s visits to 600 Planned Parenthood clinics in 48 states, then sold their data to an anti-abortion agency.

Could You Be Targeted With Anti-Abortion Ads If You Go to a Planned Parenthood?

In a new letter to the Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said he and his staff learned the data broker Near Intelligence tracked people’s visits to all 600 Planned Parenthood health centers and clinics in 48 states and sold this data to the anti-abortion organization Veritas Society. (Planned Parenthood’s website states that its network includes 600 health centers in the U.S.) Veritas used this data to target Planned Parenthood visitors with one of the largest-scale anti-abortion ad campaigns in history. Wyden states that the Veritas ad blitz “ran from November 2019 through the summer of 2022, after the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, permitting states to criminalize abortion.”

Data brokers have been able to collect location data and track people’s visits to reproductive health clinics for years—in fact, in 2015, one ad firm said that it had the ability to “tag all the smartphones entering and leaving” all the Planned Parenthoods in the country. Wyden’s letter confirms the breadth and scale of these data collection practices, at a time when there’s more at stake than ever.

Near claimed in February 2023 that it obtains data only with user consent. However, according to Wyden, Near’s former chief privacy officer Jay Angelo told his Senate staff that the company collected and sold this data without users’ permission. “In the October 18, 2023, call with my staff, Mr. Angelo revealed that while he had put a stop to the company’s sale of data about Europeans, which is subject to Europe’s strong privacy law, the company was still selling location data about Americans,” Wyden’s letter states. “[Angelo] also confirmed that the data it sold about Americans was obtained without consent, which is generally the case with data from advertising exchanges.”

By contrast with Europe, federal privacy law in the U.S. has lagged. Wyden was one of several Congress members who introduced the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act in July. This bill would accord the federal government more oversight of data brokers and their data collection practices. It would also prohibit law enforcement and intelligence agencies from purchasing U.S. citizens’ data from brokers like Near. 

Under current law, the FTC has the power to prosecute companies for unfair and deceptive conduct, including the sale of sensitive consumer location data. Wyden’s letter calls on the FTC to investigate Near for potential violations, and also stop the company from selling its troves of user data as it sells off its varying assets since filing for bankruptcy in December. “Federal watchdogs should hold the data broker accountable for abusing Americans’ private information. 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,” Wyden wrote.

In May 2023, the Wall Street Journal first reported that Veritas, a nonprofit fund created by Wisconsin Right to Life—used location data to place anti-abortion ads in users’ Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat feeds between November 2019 through late 2022, in line with the timeline Wyden presents in his letter. The ads lie to users that they can seek “abortion reversal” to reverse a medication abortion that’s underway. Veritas claimed on its website in 2022 that its geofencing campaign across Wisconsin drew 14.3 million ad impressions from late 2019 to 2020 from mobile devices that had been carried into abortion clinics. Veritas continues to offer other anti-abortion groups “advanced technology” to “reach women who are at risk for abortion.”

Democratic lawmakers, abortion rights advocates, and legal experts have all warned that in the absence of Roe v. Wade, the lack of protections for pregnant people’s data could put them at risk of surveillance and prosecution. Currently, active abortion bans only explicitly criminalize abortion providers and not patients, but there have been dozens of cases of pregnant people facing criminal charges for pregnancy loss or self-managing an abortion. In some of these cases, online searches for abortion pills or texts with friends about seeking abortion pills have been used as evidence against them. 

Cynthia Conti-Cook, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation who focuses on gender, racial, and ethnic justice, and author of Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary, previously told Jezebel that law enforcement agencies can seek geo-fence warrants from companies like Google or data brokers like Near to identify who’s visited these clinics, if these companies continue to collect this data. (In 2022, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, Google pledged to automatically delete location data collected from abortion clinics; watchdog groups say the company hasn’t fulfilled this promise.) Law enforcement agencies can also, hypothetically, seek warrants for location data from rehabilitation facilities, which could help them prosecute pregnant women for alleged substance use—this is the top reason that people face pregnancy-related criminal charges.

In May 2022, Democrats wrote a letter to Google urging the company to protect abortion seekers’ data in the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe. “We are concerned that, in a world in which abortion could be made illegal, Google’s current practice of collecting and retaining extensive records of cell phone location data will allow it to become a tool for far-right extremists looking to crack down on people seeking reproductive health care,” the letter said. “If abortion is made illegal by the far-right Supreme Court and Republican lawmakers, it is inevitable that right-wing prosecutors will obtain legal warrants to hunt down, prosecute and jail women for obtaining critical reproductive health care. The only way to protect your customers’ location data from such outrageous government surveillance is to not keep it in the first place.”

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