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Phones Know Who Went to an Abortion Clinic. Whom Will They Tell?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on the impact of location data tracking on recent abortion bans across the country. Find it here.

In light of the overturning of Roe v Wade, data may play a dangerous role in surveilling those who seek abortions in states where they have been banned. Location data companies are currently being approached for data on reproductive health, that is, who visits abortion clinics where and when, in order to potentially build cases against those seeking or aiding abortions. 

This soliciting of location info by government agencies supplements the ability to search text messages, search history, and health data to build such cases. Certain states, like Texas, have financially incentivized lawsuits against those suspected of aiding abortions, making the potential for companies to access such data at large dangerous to individual privacy. However, some groups say this potential may not be as troubling as it seems, because the data collected by location data companies is often imprecise and could be contested in court.

Nevertheless, in response to being asked for this data, the responses of location data companies have varied. The selling of such data has in the past proved controversial, but location data is still rampantly collected and sold to advertisers, tech firms, and data aggregates. Following the overturning of Roe v Wade, however, companies have been forced to make a moral decision regarding what to do with the data on who visits abortion clinics. Some, like Google outright deny to share data on visits to abortion clinics, whereas others opt to anonymize the data, say the data is too difficult to access to pose a real threat to individual privacy (as Apple is doing), delete health-related location information, or obscure the connection between the raw latitude and longitude data and directories that indicate the presence abortion clinics. Pushback to these efforts argue that such a blackout of location data will interrupt and hinder important research on topics like healthcare or abortion access.

The response of companies is largely heartening, as it has proven there is some corporate regard for individual privacy in light of nationwide abortion bans. It will remain to be seen if data that government agencies can access will be used to file legal cases against those providing or seeking abortions.

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