Imagine living in a place where the abortion rights have been tightened and data about pregnant women could be bought by the police or private citizens to identify people considering or seeking an abortion. This might not be a too far future in some states in America.
According to the news website Gizmodo 32 U.S. brokers are selling data linked to American profiles, revealing if a woman is pregnant or actively shopping for maternity products.
This information is worth a lot a money, as the sale of maternity products are continuously rising. It is therefore no surprise, that data brokers do what they can to collect data and pinpoint pregnant women to target them more easily with adds for maternity products.
However, with the new abortion law in America allowing every state to make their own abortion regulation, data pinpointing pregnant women might be used for something else than exposing them to maternity product ads.
The 32 data brokers Gizmodo identified gave access to the unique mobile IDs from 2.9 profiles labeled as “actively pregnant” or “shopping for maternity products” and 478 million customer profiles identified as “intending to become pregnant” or “interested in pregnancy”.
You can see Gizmodo’s full list here (be aware, the link is to a Google docs spreadsheet).
Gizmodo was only able to find the likely data source for 19 of the data brokers, however for the 13 remaining companies it was impossible to identify how and where they got access to the data. The opaqueness of how these companies came across the data, makes it impossible estimate if individuals have willingly and knowingly shared their private data. According to a recent post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation developers making apps that collect location data probably have no idea where their user’s data ends up. And users have no way of working out how their data got in the hands of data brokers to begin with.
This data can be used to not only pinpoint pregnant women, but also be used identify women that have been in vicinity of abortion clinics. According to Gizmodo there have already been cases of anti-abortion activist using geofencing technology to target women in and around Planned Parenthood clinics to target them with anti-abortion ads.
The same information could be used to legally prosecute women that are seeking an abortion or had an abortion. In one case a woman’s Google searches have been used to prosecute her of her stillborn baby’s death. Depending on the laws of the specifique states anti-abortion prosecutions could be based on the legal concept “mens rea” which is the supposed knowledge or intention of wrongdoing in the case of an alleged crime.
The business model of selling personal data to make targeted ads can have real consequences for people, when the most sensitive and private information is up for sale to the highest bidder.
Screendump from Gizmodo