Data broker SafeGraph stops selling abortion-provider information

People protest after the leak of a draft majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, later this year in New York City, US, May 3, 2022, in historic Roe v. Wade is preparing for a court majority to overturn the abortion rights decision.

Yana Paskova Reuters

Online data-location broker SafeGraph said it has stopped selling information on abortion clinic visits after a report from Vice showed how easily the data can be procured, raising concerns that “anti-abortion vigilance” It can use it to target providers and their customers. ,

Vice reported Tuesday that it has purchased a week’s worth of location data from SafeGraph for just over $160 for more than 600 Planned Parenthood locations across the United States.

According to the report, some of those places provide abortion services.

According to the Vice Motherboard article, the data reveals where the groups of people who visited those facilities came from, the duration of their visits, and where they traveled afterward.

SafeGraph, whose investors have reportedly included billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel and the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, obtains and aggregates location data from apps installed on people’s mobile phones.

The company says that “pattern” data purchased by Vice, which shows how groups of people interact with a given location, is anonymized to protect the privacy of individual visitors.

But Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher, told Vice: “It’s dangerous to have abortion clinics and then let someone buy the census track from where people are coming to visit that abortion clinic.”

“That’s how you ‘docs’ someone traveling across state lines for an abortion — how do you do clinics that provide this service,” Edwards said.

Vice’s article was published a day after Politico’s report on a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion indicates that a majority of judges have voted to overturn the half-century-old Roe v. Wade ruling, which says that people have a constitutional right to abortion

If it happens to be an official decision from the high court this summer, the ruling could be expected to ban abortions, or severely curtail the procedure, in two dozen states.

That, in turn, is expected to increase the number of people traveling from their home states to obtain abortions at clinics in states where the procedure would still be legal, as recently as Texas adopted a restrictive new abortion law. Is.

Asked by CNBC on Wednesday about the Vice article, a SafeGraph spokesperson emailed a link to an online post titled “Demystifying the SafeGraph Facts.”

In the post, the company said it “sells only facts,” and “we only sell data about physical locations (not individuals).”

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“To our knowledge, no one has ever used the SafeGraph pattern data for malicious purposes,” the post said. “In fact, the pattern dataset has been used mostly by 15,000+ researchers and academia and local governments to combat COVID-19.”

“But there are always highly hypothetical corner cases, and in some cases these are worth actively preventing,” the post said.

“In light of potential federal changes to family planning access, we are removing pattern data from our own “shop” and APIs for locations classified as NAICS code 621410 (‘Family Planning Center’) to allow any access to its data. also to prevent potential misuse,” the post added.

Seifgraf said the removal of this data would affect many academic researchers who want to study the topic, “such as understanding the impact of the law on family planning visits.”

“We acknowledge that our decision to remove the pattern of family planning centers may negatively affect this valuable research, but we think it is the right decision given the current environment,” the company said.

SafeGraph said it will still have for-sale data about the locations and hours of operation of family planning centers.

“Family planning centers like Planned Parenthood make their location data public because they want to serve their constituents,” SafeGraph said.

Planned Parenthood did not immediately comment to CNBC regarding the SafeGraph data.

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