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US Data Broker SafeGraph Stops Selling Data on Those Who Visit Abortion Clinics

Such data could be accessed and weaponised by anti-abortion vigilantes and law enforcement.

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Tech News
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US Data Broker SafeGraph Stops Selling Data on Those Who Visit Abortion Clinics
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Online data broker SafeGraph, which was found to be selling location data about people who visited abortion clinics, has pulled such data from its "shop" after widespread criticism and backlash.

The fact that this kind of data was available for purchase to practically anyone is especially alarming in light of the leaked draft opinion that revealed that the US Supreme Court has privately voted to strike down abortion rights.

Several US states have criminalised abortions after only six weeks of pregnancy and some, like Missouri, are considering laws that could make it illegal for residents to cross state lines for access to abortion clinics.

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What SafeGraph Was Selling

Vice, which broke the story on SafeGraph, was able to purchase data from the broker showing where groups of people visiting the locations came from, the duration of their stay, and where they went afterwards.

The company can even reportedly calculate the general area in which it believes groups of people who visited certain locations reside.

“This is how you dox someone traveling across state lines for abortions – how you dox clinics providing this service,” cybersecurity researcher Zach Edwards told the publication.

The data, which was reportedly on sale for as little as $160 for a week, is aggregated and does not provide information about individuals. However, research shows that it isn't very difficult to study mobility data and identify individuals.

SafeGraph's detailed information comes from mobile phones. Often app makers use software development kits (SDKs), which are essentially ready-made software kits from third party developers, to cut down on time and effort.

In exchange, SDK makers get user data from the apps that use their code. Some of them sell their data to data brokers, which then analyse and repackage it for sale to customers.

"We build facts about physical places and that’s all we do," says SafeGraph. "Part of democratising access to data means making it available in a self-serve way. But of course, making data convenient and accessible also has drawbacks. It means we aren’t able to fully control who buys the data."

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Law Enforcement and Vigilantes

If the US Supreme Court does end up striking down the 50-year-old Roe v Wade judgment which gave citizens the constitutional right to abortions, 13 states have passed 'trigger laws' which will immediately make any abortions illegal, according to CNN.

Several states can be expected to engage in mass surveillance to enforce anti-abortion laws and potentially track people crossing state borders to get access to abortions. Data sold by brokers will be crucial for this.

Such data might also be accessed by anti-abortion vigilantes and lead to a spike in targeted harassment.

In 2021, when Texas passed its anti abortion law an organisation called Texas Right to Life urged citizens to submit anonymous tips on its website to help with enforcement, MSNBC reported. The site was heavily trolled and went defunct, but the court judgment could revitalise such efforts.

Governments are also likely to get data by other means.

"It’s all but certain that police and prosecutors will tap into the full fearsome force of the local surveillance state to find such evidence," wrote Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) in his piece for Fast Company.

"Using geofence warrants, courts can compel companies to provide the device history of everyone in a specified map area. Law enforcement could use nearly any pretext to demand that Google and other tech companies provide the name of everyone who visits an abortion provider."
Albert Fox Cahn for Fast Company

He also pointed out that education officials in states like Texas could weaponise school surveillance networks by identifying and tracking any students who search for information about abortion.

(With inputs from Vice, MSNBC, CNN and Fast Company)

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