Protect women's right to privacy

While SafeGraph isn't selling data about individuals visiting abortion clinics, they could. And that's not ok. This is a regulatory failing and a technical failing.

Yesterday I was called out, along with a number of other people, in a Twitter thread as an investor in SafeGraph, whose location-based data product could conceptually be used to identify people who visit Planned Parenthood clinics.

I was caught off guard because I am a passive angel investor in the company from many years ago and have no business dealings with them. But this isn't about me or my feelings, this is about the dangers of ad tech and medical information, a subject that is very important to me.

I decided to do a bit of research to understand the underlying issues, and I'm going to post a few articles here that I highly recommend you read.

Meet abortion bans’ new best friend: your phone
When it comes to reproductive rights, your digital trail matters more than you think.
Illinois Bought Invasive Phone Location Data From Banned Broker Safegraph
The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) purchased access to precise geolocation data about over 40% of the state’s population from Safegraph, the controversial data broker recently banned from Google’s app store. In an agreement signed in January 2019, IDOT paid $49,500 for access to two ye…
Firm settles Massachusetts probe over anti-abortion ads sent to phones
A Massachusetts advertising agency has agreed not to use location technology to target women entering clinics that offer abortion with smartphone ads with messages including “You Have Choices” and “You’re Not Alone,” state officials said on Tuesday.

The key line is from the EFF article: "IDOT and SafeGraph might argue that the agency is just obtaining traffic patterns. But the data used for these traffic patterns sheds light on all sorts of private activity—from attendance at a protest and trips to hospitals or churches to where you eat lunch and with whom. Even if it’s done for supposedly innocuous ends, the acquisition of large quantities of granular location data about people is too dangerous."

In other words, while SafeGraph isn't selling data about individuals visiting abortion clinics, they could. And that's not ok. This is a regulatory failing: we need federal privacy laws in the US. It's also a technical failing: we need browsers and operating systems to prevent tracking across sites and apps (h/t to Alex Cone who pointed out that there is a lot of great work happening in this area).

While we wait for regulation and browsers to address the underlying issues, every ad technology company - including Google, Meta, Amazon, Twitter, Trade Desk, SafeGraph, LiveRamp, and many more - should:

  1. Ban geotargeting around abortion clinics and other sensitive locations
  2. Delete any location data related to visits to abortion clinics, including other locations visited on those trips
  3. Cease collecting data on websites related to the topic of abortion and disallow any third-party data related to abortion

I strongly support women's rights and the right to choose, and at the same time I respect that many people are fundamentally opposed to abortion. I am not suggesting that companies take a political stance on the merits of abortion; I am saying that companies must respect the privacy of the millions of women and families struggling with a difficult decision. Lives are literally at stake.

Update... and will post more as companies take action!

Data Broker SafeGraph Stops Selling Location Data of People Who Visit Planned Parenthood
The move comes after Motherboard found it was possible to buy data showing how many people visited Planned Parenthood locations, where they came from, and where they went afterwards.