A company tracked visits to 600 Planned Parenthood locations for anti-abortion ads, senator says

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A company allegedly tracked people’s visits to nearly 600 Planned Parenthood locations across 48 states and provided that data for one of the largest anti-abortion ad campaigns in the nation, according to an investigation by Sen. Ron Wyden, a scope that far exceeds what was previously known.

The details in Wyden (D-Ore.)’s letter, sent Tuesday morning, reveal what’s believed to be the largest publicly known location-driven anti-abortion ad campaign. Abortion rights supporters have feared this type of data could also be used by certain state governments to prosecute women who get the procedure after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there is no constitutional right to an abortion.

Wyden’s letter asks the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Near Intelligence, a location data provider that gathered and sold the information. The company claims to have information on 1.6 billion people across 44 countries, according to its website.

The company’s data can be used to target ads to people who have been to specific locations — including reproductive health clinic locations, according to Recrue Media co-founder Steven Bogue, who told Wyden’s staff his firm used the company’s data for a national anti-abortion ad blitz between 2019 and 2022.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the campaign last May, focusing on the anti-abortion group Veritas Society’s efforts in Wisconsin, along with Arkansas, New Jersey, California and Colorado.

The group’s parent organization, Wisconsin Right to Life, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The ability to use people’s location data to target ads to Planned Parenthood visitors has been available to data brokers for years, with one ad firm boasting in 2015 that it could “tag all the smartphones entering and leaving the nearly 700 Planned Parenthood clinics in the U.S.”

Wyden’s letter reveals for the first time the scope of an anti-abortion ad campaign that used location data to target the hundreds of Planned Parenthood clinics in the country.

Justin Sherman, a researcher who studies data brokers at Duke University, called the campaign’s scale unprecedented.

“This is the largest targeting campaign we’ve seen to date against reproductive health clinics based on brokered data,” he said.

Wyden’s letter cites an interview his office conducted with Bogue, who disclosed that the company used Near to reach the people who would receive the anti-abortion ads.

"The scale of this invasive surveillance-enabled ad campaign remains unknown, however, Mr. Bogue told my staff that the company used Near to target ads to people who had visited 600 Planned Parenthood locations in the lower 48 states,” wrote Wyden, a frequent critic of the data brokers who has called for privacy regulations to rein in the industry’s practices.

Bogue didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Data obtained without consent: Wyden is calling on the SEC to investigate Near over misleading claims the company made to investors in its filings.

In a February 2023 filing, the company said it ensures that the data it obtains was collected with the users’ permission, but Near’s former chief privacy officer Jay Angelo told Wyden’s staff that the company collected and sold data about people without consent, according to the letter.

While the company stopped selling location data belonging to Europeans, it continued for Americans because of a lack of federal privacy regulations.

“Mr. Angelo revealed that while he had put a stop to the company’s sale of data about Europeans, which is subject to Europe’s strong privacy law, the company was still selling location data about Americans,” the letter said.

Angelo didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Wyden is also accusing Near of misleading investors by stating in its SEC filing from last August that Congress hasn’t sent any requests for information since July of 2022. Wyden’s office had been requesting Near for information in May 2023 and also corresponded with Near’s counsel in June 2023.

“I am concerned that this repeated misleading claim and Near’s statements to investors regarding users consenting to the sharing and sale of their data may be violations of federal securities laws,” Wyden said in the letter.

A spokesperson for Near denied Wyden’s allegations and declined to comment further.

Calling on the FTC to block data sales: Near filed for bankruptcy in December and is selling off the business and its assets, which could include the trove of data collected from Planned Parenthood facilities.

Wyden is asking the FTC to prevent Near from selling that data. The company’s privacy policy notes that in the event of bankruptcy or sale of assets, Near could transfer the data it collects to its successor.

The FTC has prevented defunct companies from being able to sell sensitive data in the past. In 2010, the agency sought to block a gay youth magazine from selling its subscriber’s information in its bankruptcy proceedings.

In recent months, the FTC has been cracking down on data brokers collecting and sharing health-related information. The agency’s settlement against the location data broker X-Mode highlights that the company ran ads targeted to people who visited medical facilities, and its lawsuit against the data broker Kochava also notes that the data tracked people who visited reproductive healthcare clinics.

In both cases, the FTC alleged that the companies collected location data without proper consent from people.

“Given the sensitivity of the ill-gotten data sold by Near, the FTC must act to protect consumers from further harm,” Wyden notes in the letter.