Lawmakers amplify calls for federal agencies to increase data privacy after Dobbs ruling

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Diving brief:

  • Democratic lawmakers continue to call on federal agencies to strengthen data privacy protections for patients seeking abortions, following the Supreme Court’s ruling ending the constitutional right to process.
  • Seventy-two Democratic members of Congress sent a letter Wednesday to Lina Khan, chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission, urging her to use the “full power” of her office to pass safeguards against data brokers who collect and sell data that could be used to prosecute pregnancy-related crimes.
  • The letter to the FTC follows one sent Friday by Democratic senators to HHS urging the department to update the HIPAA privacy law to limit when covered entities can share information about abortion services.

Overview of the dive:

In June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and overturned decades of established precedent. This landmark decision has led dozens of states to restrict access or criminalize the procedure. Many patients from states that ban abortion are now turning to states where the procedure remains legal.

Due to disparate abortion access and legality, some Republican state lawmakers have suggested using a person’s location and browsing data to prosecute them for seeking an abortion outside of the state.

The letter to the FTC cites location data company SafeGraph, which sold a week’s worth of private location data on people who visited abortion clinics in May for $160. The data included where people visiting the clinics came from, how long they stayed at the clinic, and where they went after the visit.

SafeGraph has since said it voluntarily stopped selling the information.

But “stronger safeguards must be put in place to prevent abusive data practices that can lead to the investigation or prosecution of those seeking medical services, including abortions,” the letter led by the representatives Lizzie Fletcher, D-Texas, and Norma Torres, D-California, lit. “The collection and sale of this information creates a significant risk of substantial harm to consumers’ right to privacy, including harm to safety and health.”

The FTC should immediately investigate these practices, issue warning letters if necessary, and pursue strong enforcement of illegal acts, the letter urges.

Democratic lawmakers also want the FTC to look into technology practices that monitor people seeking abortions. The letter cites how in Texas, an anti-abortion group launched a hotline encouraging citizens to submit advice on people seeking abortions.

Additionally, some anti-abortion groups have used geolocation technology in fertility apps to target people who visit health clinics with anti-abortion messages online, the letter says.

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