TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — How much technology is too much technology? Is it a phone, a tablet, a smarter car? How many apps do you have on your phone? Do you use a menstrual cycle tracking app to see when you might be close to having your period?
Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the U.S. Supreme Court and the subsequent 13 states with trigger laws to ban abortion now in effect, those questions regarding private data have earned the focus of Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate.
While legislation had already been filed to add protections for personal data more generally, renewed focus has been placed on personal health apps with menstrual trackers over the geo-location components. Multiple House Oversight Committee members have drawn that particular facet of private information to the forefront of a data debate due to how it could be used in a post-Roe world.
Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Rep. Sara Jacobs sent a series of letters on Friday to five different reproductive health app companies and five data broker companies about how they collect and sell the data submitted and used by their customers.
According to the committee members’ release, they’re concerned with how that data might be used in states where abortions are banned and where women may leave the state to seek an abortion.
“The collection of 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,” the Members wrote. “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.”
The release from the Oversight Committee also said that modern times were “an era of unprecedented digital surveillance” and that the “distribution of personal health data further threatens the health, safety, and privacy of people and health care providers across the country.” To that end, the committee members said data brokers have been selling sensitive user location data, and that “recent reporting indicates” the brokers have sold mobile phone location data of Americans that “have visited health care clinics that provide abortions, leading to concerns about the misuse of private data to target individuals seeking this care.”
Letters have been sent to the following companies, with the House requesting a response by July 21:
- Click here to read the letter to SafeGraph.
- Click here to read the letter to Digital Envoy.
- Click here to read the letter to Placer.ai.
- Click here to read the letter to Gravy Analytics.
- Click here to read the letter to Babel Street.
- Click here to read the letter to Flo Health, Inc.
- Click here to read the letter to Glow, Inc.
- Click here to read the letter to BioWink GmbH.
- Click here to read the letter to GP International LLC.
- Click here to read the letter to Digitalchemy Ventures, Inc.
According to NBC News, lawmakers have suggested that “in states that reward citizens who enforce the bans could target people seeking abortion care ‘by purchasing location data from data brokers.'”
One recent example of such a state with a law rewarding citizens who assist in enforcing abortion bans would be Texas, with its abortion ban which included a provision for citizens to sue fellow Texans over “aiding and abetting” someone getting an abortion beyond the allowed six weeks set by the state’s Senate Bill 8.
Florida does not have legislation with the same effects as the “Texas-style” abortion ban, though last September, then-Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) said state lawmakers may consider one. While the 2022 legislative session did not include a bill with a similar civil enforcement action, it did decrease Florida’s abortion allowance from 24 weeks to 15, with House Bill 5.
Federal House Democrats are not the only U.S. lawmakers concerned about data privacy.
After the SCOTUS decision on Roe v. Wade, Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) called on data brokers to permanently stop selling location data, or enabling such sales, of those who visit abortion clinics.
Warren has also sponsored legislation, called the Health and Location Data Protection Act, that would require data brokers to stop selling location and health data of Americans. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was one of her bill’s cosponsors. In her letter to data brokers about sale of abortion clinic visitor information, Warren referenced the proposed legislation.
“Two large data brokers have committed to stop selling the location data of people who visit abortion clinics. This is a good start,” Warren said. “But with Roe v. Wade dead and states across the country seeking to criminalize essential health care, we can’t rely on the goodwill of Big Tech to protect Americans’ data and safety. That’s why I’m calling on the United States Congress to pass my Health and Location Data Protection Act to ban brokers from selling location and health data and establish serious privacy protections for consumers.”
While federal lawmakers weigh how to codify privacy protections for reproductive health data when it comes to apps, some companies are already working to privatize that information. Google announced it would automatically erase location data of people visiting medical sites, including abortion clinics, in a recent blog post. The company said they have “long advocated for” a broad national law regarding data privacy, but following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, they were no longer “waiting for a law to take action.”
Going forward, Google said it would “protect user privacy around health issues” by setting location history to “off by default” and letting users “auto-delete” the information when visiting “medical facilities like counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, abortion clinics, fertility centers, addiction treatment facilities, weight loss clinics, cosmetic surgery clinics, and others” which may be “particularly personal.”
Additionally, Flo has added an “Anonymous Mode” following the June 24 Roe decision. Flo said they were doing so to “further protect reproductive health information,” and that the company’s mission was “to build a better future for female health, and helps millions of women take control of their reproductive health.” However, Flo said the feature had “already been underway,” but they had “accelerated” development following the Supreme Court’s decision.