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Health and Location Data Protection Act would ban companies from selling location data, like when a…

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Health and Location Data Protection Act would ban companies from selling location data, like when a user visits an abortion clinic

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Now that Roe v. Wade has been reversed, Democrats fear the phone and computer location data captured in regular usage activitives could be used by law enforcement in states which have banned abortion to find and arrest people who seek abortions.


In May, Politico leaked a draft Supreme Court opinion indicating areversal of 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision, which would return abortion policy back to the individual states. A comparison by GovTrack of the differences in the draft and final opinion indicate that they are very similar. While this bill was inspired by the leaked draft, it appears to apply just as much to the final decision.

In May, Vice’s technology-focused news website Motherboard reported that the data broker SafeGraph was selling location data from people who visited abortion clinics like Planned Parenthood. The data included both where they were coming from and where they went afterwards — sometimes for as little as $160. (SafeGraph announced it would cease the practice the day after the report.)

In a world where most people carry their cell phones everywhere they go, many on the pro-choice side fear that such information will be used for prosecution in the 26 states poised to ban abortion now that Roe is overturned.

After the Motherboard report, more than a dozen Democratic senators signed a letter to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) asking them to crack down on the practice. Now many of those same senators have introduced legislation aiming to ban the practice legislatively.

What the bill does

The Health and Location Data Protection Act would ban data brokers from selling or transferring data related to location or health. A few exemptions would be granted, such as to “validly authorized disclosures” for data, for example for a legally valid search warrant.

It would also provide $1 billion to the FTC to enforce the law, and allows either the commission, a state’s attorney general, or an injured party — namely, the person whose data was violated — to sue as a means of enforcement.

The bill was introduced in the Senate on June 15 as S. 4408, by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that just about the most private medical or health decision a person can make shouldn’t be up for sale to the highest bidder — or even made freely available.

“Data brokers profit from the location data of millions of people, posing serious risks to Americans everywhere by selling their most private information,” Sen. Warren said in a press release. “With this extremist Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and states seeking to criminalize essential health care, it is more crucial than ever for Congress to protect consumers’ sensitive data. [The bill] will ban brokers from selling Americans’ location and health data, rein in giant data brokers, and set some long overdue rules of the road for this [industry].”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that data selling isn’t as nefarious as critics make it out to seem, and when done right, it can be used for illuminating research rather than to target specific people.

“We don’t have any indication that this data has ever been used for bad purposes,” SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman wrote in a message he was taking down the data. “We have had many academics that have used this type of data for really good purposes.”

“Taking away this data will impact many academics that want to study this topic, like understanding the impact of legislation on family planning visits,” Hoffman continued. “We acknowledge that our decision to take down [the data] for family planning centers could negatively impact this valuable research, but we think this is the right decision given the current climate.”

Odds of passage

The bill has attracted four cosponsors: three Democrats and one independent. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

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This article was written by GovTrack Insider staff writer Jesse Rifkin.

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