FTC cracks down on medical and location data sharing over abortion privacy concerns

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says it will step up to protect consumer privacy in a post-roe America, declaring that the agency is “committed to fully enforcing the law” against illegally sharing sensitive medical and location data.

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In a blog post published Monday by Kristin Cohen, the FTC’s acting deputy director in its Privacy and Identity Protection division, the committee focused specifically on data brokers and third parties who share previously collected information. The message references a wide range of sources that could potentially collect sensitive information about a user, but highlights the combination of location data and health data as a particular risk to consumers.

“The conversation about technology tends to focus on benefits,” Cohen writes:

But there’s a behind-the-scenes irony that needs to be explored in the open: the extent to which highly personal information that people choose not to disclose, even to family, friends, or co-workers, is actually shared with complete strangers. These strangers participate in the often shady ecosystem of ad technology and data brokers, where for-profit companies share data at an unprecedented scale and granularity.

While there are many areas of life that users of digital services may wish to keep private, information related to reproductive health is particularly sensitive, the blog post said. As such, the FTC plans to use federal and state laws to prosecute companies that fail to adequately protect such information or misrepresent how it is stored, anonymized, and shared.

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“The Commission is determined to use the full scope of its legal authorities to protect consumer privacy,” Cohen wrote. “We will enforce the law vigorously if we uncover illegal conduct that misuses Americans’ location, health or other sensitive data. The FTC’s past enforcement actions provide a roadmap for companies seeking to comply with the law.”

The FTC’s statement follows an executive order on abortion care and patient privacy, signed by President Biden on July 8. The executive order emphasized the need to secure access to abortion and contraception while protecting the privacy of those who may have access to reproductive health services. As such, the order instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to medical care for pregnant women and ensure that FDA-approved medications are widely available, and also called on the FTC to take additional steps. undertaking with regard to consumer privacy for abortion seekers.

Since the Supreme Court overturned federal protections against abortion, many privacy advocates have expressed concerns about the weaponization of data collected by period-tracking apps and other online services. With abortion banned in at least 10 states and likely more to follow, reproductive justice advocates have urged tech companies to minimize the collection and retention of data that could be used to prosecute abortion seekers. So far, the push has had some success: In early July, Google announced that the company would automatically begin deleting records of abortion clinic visits from users’ location history.

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