Warren Calls Out Tech Firms for Selling Abortion Clinic Patients’ Location Data

Fourteen Senate Democrats sent a letter to tech firms Wednesday demanding answers to reports about the collection and sale of location data of people who have visited abortion clinics.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) led the lawmakers in writing letters to the two firms, expressing concerns about the data as Roe v. Wade faces being overturned by the Supreme Court. If Roe is struck down, over half of states are likely to ban abortion by automatic trigger laws or new legislation.

“Especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, your company’s sale of such data — to virtually anyone with a credit card — poses serious dangers for all women seeking access to abortion services,” read the letter addressed to SafeGraph. (Abortion seekers also include trans men and nonbinary people.)

The letter was signed by Democratic lawmakers such as Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey).

Earlier this month, Motherboard reported that data firm SafeGraph is selling information about the whereabouts of people who have visited abortion clinics such as Planned Parenthood, including their movement after the visit and how long they stay at the clinic. The publication also found that Placer.ai offered data for sale showing the approximate location of where Planned Parenthood clinic visitors live; it removed the listing for such data after reporters contacted the company for comment.

Anti-abortion groups have been harassing, attacking and murdering abortion clinic employees, escorts and patients for years. With abortion rights under threat, clinics are prepared for more vicious attacks, especially as far right Republicans seek to place bounties on people involved in reproductive care.

Such hate groups have already used location data in order to show patients anti-abortion messaging on their phones while they are sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics. Other data, like search engine history for abortion pills, can be tied to personal information like Google accounts. The data also provides access to information on a person’s finances and political views, and emails they send and receive. In a post-Roe world, even data from period tracker apps could be weaponized by anti-abortionists to prosecute someone whose data suggests they may have gotten an abortion.

Access to the type of data offered by SafeGraph and Placer.ai only puts patients and providers at even more risk, the lawmakers said. “It is difficult to overstate the dangers of SafeGraph’s unsavory business practices,” they wrote.

SafeGraph has defended its sales of the data, saying that it’s “anonymized,” but the lawmakers said that that defense demonstrates a misunderstanding of the root of the problem.

“[A]s experts have repeatedly warned, it can be ‘trivially easy’ to link someone’s location data with their real-world identities, especially when datasets are limited to only ‘four or five’ devices in a location,” the lawmakers said. “SafeGraph’s sale of this data presents an ongoing threat to women who have sought abortions and who may seek them in the future.”

The letters’ signatories asked the companies to provide details about the type of data that it sells about abortion clinic visitors and to pledge to stop selling such data altogether. The letters are part of Democrats’ attempts to protect abortion rights and abortion seekers ahead of the likely end of Roe.

“Democrats need to use every tool possible to defend Americans’ right to an abortion and protect women’s health,” Warren said in a statement. “With an extremist Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe, I’m calling out data-broker companies for their disturbing practices of selling and transferring the personal information of women visiting abortion clinics, including their cell-phone location data.”