Privacy, Governance, Risk and Compliance, Data Security

After fall of Roe v. Wade, Congress calls for FTC probe of mobile tracking by Google, Apple

The FTC is being urged to investigate the data collection practices of Apple and Google to protect the safety and privacy of women, after the overturn of Roe v. Wade. (Photo credit: “Women’s Health at the Supreme Court” by LaDawna’s pics is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., alongside Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., are calling for a Federal Trade Commission probe into the mobile tracking used by Apple and Googlef following the repeal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court.

Healthcare privacy leaders and congressional members are concerned by the upheaval, not only for the health risks, but the possible privacy risks posed by tech — and questionable data tracking and security practices.

Ahead of the ruling, a group of 40 Democrats, led by Wyden, called on Google to stop collecting and storing location information. The primary concern is that the data could be obtained and used in states actively seeking to criminalize abortion and empower citizen’s to provide information on women seeking abortion services.

As noted in the FTC letter, “Prosecutors in states where abortion becomes illegal will soon be able to obtain warrants for location information about anyone who has visited an abortion provider. Private actors will also be incentivized by state bounty laws to hunt down women who have obtained or are seeking an abortion.”

The latest push builds on past efforts, asking the FTC to investigate Apple and Google “for engaging in unfair and deceptive practices” by collecting and selling the personal data of millions of users. The companies are accused of knowingly facilitating the practices “by building advertising-specific tracking IDs into their mobile operating systems.”

Specifically, the tech giants designed their smartphones to include unique tracking identifiers for advertising purposes. The congressional members argue the “identifiers have fueled the unregulated data broker market by creating a single piece of information linked to a device that data brokers and their customers can use to link to other data about consumers.”

“This data is bought or acquired from app developers and online advertisers, and can include consumers’ movements and web browsing activity,” the members wrote. “While purportedly anonymous, these advertising identifiers are easily linkable back to individual users.”

Although consumers are able to opt out of tracking, it’s only possible by digging “through confusing phone settings to turn it off.” Google enables the tracking by default, and consumers didn’t have the ability to opt out until recently.

Without Roe v. Wade, the dubious practice of data brokers selling databases that “explicitly link” the advertising identifiers directly to consumers is a serious privacy risk for women. In short, these advertising tracking systems can be exploited for surveillance or “expose hundreds of millions of Americans to serious privacy harms.”

In light of these serious concerns, the congressional members urged the FTC to investigate the practices and the tech giants’ role in “transforming online advertising into an intense system of surveillance that incentivizes and facilitates the unrestrained collection and constant sale of Americans’ personal data.”

The letter comes on the heels of legislation introduced by Warren that would ban these practices all together. Under the proposal, data brokers would be banned from selling consumer data, particularly health and location information.

Warren stressed the bill was a direct response to the overturn of Roe v. Wade. The bill was co-signed by Wyden, Patty Murray, D-Wash., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and endorsed by a number of data and sexual privacy experts.

Jessica Davis

The voice of healthcare cybersecurity and policy for SC Media, CyberRisk Alliance, driving industry-specific coverage of what matters most to healthcare and continuing to build relationships with industry stakeholders.

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