Wyden urges FTC to safeguard abortion clinic visitors’ location data

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is calling on federal regulators to scrutinize a location data broker amid its bankruptcy proceedings, saying he’s concerned over its ownership of data showing people visiting sensitive places like reproductive health clinics.

Wyden addressed the FTC and the SEC in a letter on Tuesday as part of his ongoing investigation into Near Intelligence Inc., which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December.

The senator launched an investigation into the company last year, following reporting from the Wall Street Journal that found location data from Near had been used by the anti-abortion nonprofit group Veritas Society to target people who had visited reproductive health clinics with anti-abortion messaging and ads.

Veritas Society previously said it delivered 14.3 million ads to people who visited reproductive clinics via social media in 2020. Jay Angelo, chief privacy officer for Near, apparently confirmed to Wyden’s office that data from his company was used to target people in the contiguous 48 states who visited 600 Planned Parenthood locations.

Addressing FTC Chair Lina Khan, Wyden wrote, “I urge the FTC to intervene in Near’s bankruptcy proceedings to ensure that all location and device data held by Near about Americans is promptly destroyed and is not sold off, including to another data broker.”

“Given the sensitivity of the ill-gotten data sold by Near, the FTC must act to protect consumers from further harm,” the senator added, noting the agency had previously carried out a similar action to protect the subscriber data for a now-defunct gay youth magazine.

When reached for comment by The Hill, an FTC spokesperson said, “I can confirm we have received the letter but we don’t have any additional comment.”

Near did not immediately respond when reached for comment.

Concern over the location data of people going to abortion clinics has grown since the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade in 2022. Reproductive rights activists have warned that location data could be used by police or prosecutors in states with anti-abortion laws to go after people seeking abortions or clinicians providing abortion services.

Shortly after the Dobbs decision, Google committed to deleting the location data of consumers visiting reproductive clinics. Subsequent investigations, however, have uncovered that Google continues to retain location data for people visiting abortion clinics. A study conducted by Accountable Tech and released last month found that Google retains location data history in these cases about 50 percent of the time.

In his letter on Tuesday, Wyden also expressed concerns over Near’s sale of location data to the U.S. government, referencing a second Journal investigation that found Near sold location data to defense contractors who then sold this data to the Defense Department and intelligence agencies.

The location data was sourced from two online advertising agencies, OpenX and Smaato, and the information was reportedly meant to be used for targeting ads and not for any other purpose. The agencies reportedly cut Near off after discovering their data had been sold.

“If the data is to be sold to government contractors for national security purposes, that must be disclosed to consumers. The Americans whose data Near sold had not consented to its sale, and had not been told that it would be sold to government contractors for national security purposes,” Wyden wrote in his letter, noting that Near had previously stated it did not sell data to the government.

He asked that SEC Chair Gary Gensler expand his agency’s investigation into Near to determine if its “misleading statements” amount to securities fraud. When reached for comment, an SEC spokesperson said Gensler would “respond to Members of Congress directly.”

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