Data Broker Helped Anti-Abortion Group Target Planned Parenthood Visitors, Wyden Letter Reveals

February 13, 2024

A letter from Senator Wyden published today revealed that Near Intelligence, a location data broker, tracked individuals’ visits to nearly 600 Planned Parenthood locations to feed a massive anti-abortion ad campaign. Senator Wyden sent the letter to the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission asking the agencies to investigate the company, which claims to have information on 1.6 billion people across 44 countries.

Senator Wyden’s investigation began in May 2023 and appears to have revealed the largest publicly known anti-abortion ad campaign fueled by location data. The Veritas Society—a nonprofit created by Wisconsin Right to Life—hired Recrue Media, an ad agency, to target people who had visited facilities like reproductive health clinics with anti-abortion advertisements. The Co-Founder of Recrue Media explained that his company “used Near’s website to draw a line around the building and parking lot of each targeted facility” because Near did not have technical controls in place to prevent targeting people who had visited health clinics until after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. His letter further revealed that the Veritas Society delivered 14.3 million ads to people that had visited abortion clinics in 2020 in Wisconsin alone.

Near has a history of selling location data to U.S. government agencies that had been obtained without user consent. Near sold location data to defense contractors, which then resold it to the U.S. Defense Department and intelligence agencies despite Near’s promises that it did not sell data to “defense or governments.” These misleading promises were removed from Near’s website in 2022 after an internal review of the company’s operations.

“The continued sale of our most sensitive information to and by shady data brokers not only fuels harmful surveillance advertising systems, but enables government agencies—from local police departments to state Attorneys General to the FBI—to sidestep the Fourth Amendment,” said Sara Geoghegan, Counsel at EPIC. “We urgently need to rein in data brokers and enact comprehensive privacy rules to protect us from these grave harms in the post-Roe era we live in.”

Senator Wyden asked the FTC, among other things, to ensure that all location and device data held by Near is promptly deleted to prevent the sensitive data from being sold to another data broker in Near’s bankruptcy proceedings. He urged the SEC to broaden its investigation to determine whether Near’s misleading statements constitute securities fraud.

Senator Wyden’s investigation underscores the role that location data brokers play in our commercial and government surveillance ecosystems. These unregulated companies collect, share, and retain sensitive location information that reveals the most intimate details of our lives, and many then package and sell this information to government agencies.

EPIC has explained the threat that commercial surveillance poses to abortion access and reproductive privacy, has called on agencies to regulate location data brokers and require data controllers to delete location information, and—along with a coalition of over 100 civil society organizations—has called for the passage of legislation to close the data broker loophole as part of any reauthorization of FISA Section 702.

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