Congress Launches Probe of Collection, Sales of Data on Pregnant Women

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Reporter
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. and world news. He is based in Maryland.
July 9, 2022 Updated: July 11, 2022

A congressional panel is investigating the collection and sale of data on pregnant women, with top Democrats expressing concern that the data could be misused to invade the privacy of women seeking an abortion.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, and two members of the panel, Reps. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) and Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), said the collection of the sensitive data “could pose serious threats to those seeking reproductive care, as well as to providers of such care, not only by facilitating intrusive government surveillance, but also by putting people at risk of harassment, intimidation, and even violence.”

“Geographic data collected by mobile phones may be used to locate people seeking care at clinics, and search and chat history referring to clinics or medication create digital bread crumbs revealing interest in an abortion,” they wrote in letters to executives at 10 companies that have been involved in collecting and/or selling the information in the past.

The companies include SafeGraph, which sells mobile phone location data information from Planned Parenthood locations; Placer.ai, which has offered similar data and heat maps showing where people who visit Planned Parenthood clinics reside; and Flo Health, which has shared sensitive health data from millions of users with other companies, including Facebook and Google.

Planned Parenthood provides abortions across the country at its clinics.

Some of the location data are used to show advertisements for pregnancy centers, which encourage women to not get abortions. For example, a firm called Copley Advertising sent targeted ads for the centers to women sitting in waiting rooms in clinics.

Maloney and the other Democrats asked the companies to provide information on data collection and sharing by July 21, including all policies outlining the collection or purchase of location data information for specific locations.

“As Congress considers legislative reforms to ensure the privacy of personal reproductive and sexual health information, we are examining the practices of data brokers and other companies regarding the collection, dissemination, and sale of this private data,” they wrote.

The companies being queried didn’t return requests for comment.

Placer.ai said in a recent statement that it provides data centered around locations, not people, and that it has recategorized as sensitive the data about Planned Parenthood locations, “even though that survey-level data could not be used to track any individual user’s data.”

Gravy Analytics, another firm being probed, said in a statement it received a letter from Maloney and looked forward to responding.

The company said its “privacy backlist” prevents identification of people who visit “sensitive places of interest” such as abortion clinics and churches, and that it does not sell the personal location data of any person who visits an abortion clinic.

The investigation was begun after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, enabling states to impose stricter abortion bans. Some states already had bans in place, ready for such a decision; others have since moved to enact restrictions.

Also on July 8, President Joe Biden signed an executive order aimed at making sure women can still get abortions despite the bans. The order expands access to an abortion pill and asks the Federal Trade Commission to clamp down on data brokers that sell private health information, among other provisions.

Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. and world news. He is based in Maryland.