Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on September 28, 2021. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP)

Warren Leads Charge to Ban Sale of People's Health and Location Data

“Health and location data are incredibly sensitive and can be used for a range of harms, from profiling and exploiting consumers to spying on citizens without warrants to carrying out stalking and violence," said one expert.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday called on the U.S. Senate to protect Americans' "most private information" by banning data brokers from selling people's health and location data, which is constantly collected and stored by tech companies.

Introducing the Health and Location Data Protection Act as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to soon overturn Roe v. Wade and take away the right to abortion care for millions of Americans, the Massachusetts Democrat said "it is more crucial than ever for Congress toprotect consumers' sensitive data."

"Data brokers profit from the location data of millions of people, posing serious risks to Americans everywhere," said Warren. "The Health and Location Data Protection Act will ban brokers from selling Americans' location and health data, rein in giant data brokers, and set some long overdue rules of the road forth is $200 billion industry."

The bill defines data brokers as any person or entity "that collects, buys, licenses, or infers data about individuals and then sells, licenses, or trades that data."

The bill--which is co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)--was introduced several weeks after a data firm called SafeGraph announced under pressure that it would no longer sell information about cellphone users who visit abortion clinics.

"When abortion is illegal, researching reproductive healthcare online, updating a period-tracking app, or bringing a phone to the doctor's office all could be used to track and prosecute women across the U.S."

The company had been obtaining users' location data through apps on their phones, with many people unaware that the apps were sending information about their whereabouts to a third party.

As Common Dreams reported, over a one-week period in April, just before a leaked draft opinion revealed that the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court had voted to overturn Roe, SafeGraph sold data showing more than 600 visits to Planned Parenthood clinics for $160 to Vice.

Rights advocates expressed relief when SafeGraph announced it would end such sales, but Frederike Kaltheuner, director for technology and human rights at Human Rights Watch, said the business's actions show "what lack of data regulation means in practice."

Under Warren's proposal, the FTC, state attorneys general, and people whose data has been sold would be empowered to sue to enforce the provisions of the law and Congress would provide $1 billion to the FTC over the next decade to ensure it can enforce the ban.

Wyden said passage of the ban is crucial as the nation awaits the Supreme Court's ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

"When abortion is illegal, researching reproductive healthcare online, updating a period-tracking app, or bringing a phone to the doctor's office all could be used to track and prosecute women across the U.S.," said Wyden. "It amounts to uterus surveillance. Congress must protect Americans' privacy from abuse by far-right politicians who want to control women's bodies."

As Common Dreams reported earlier this month, privacy advocates say the collection and storage of people's location data could make tech companies "complicit in the criminalization of people seeking abortions in a post-Roe world."

Warren noted that location data has already been used by federal agencies to circumvent the Fourth Amendment by purchasing private data instead of obtaining it via a subpoena or warrant and to out LGBTQ+ people.

"Health and location data are incredibly sensitive and can be used for a range of harms, from profiling and exploiting consumers to spying on citizens without warrants to carrying out stalking and violence," said Justin Sherman of Duke University's Data Brokerage Project, who endorsed the bill. "Companies should not be allowed to freely buy and sell Americans' health and location data, on the open market, with virtually no restrictions."

"Imposing strong legal and regulatory controls on this dangerous practice is vital to protecting the privacy of every American--particularly women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, the poor, and other vulnerable communities," Sherman added.

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