February 13, 2024

Wyden Reveals Phone Data Used to Target Abortion Misinformation at Visitors to Hundreds of Reproductive Health Clinics

Wyden Calls on FTC and SEC to Protect Data of Patients and Hold Data Broker Accountable for Misleading Statements; Congress Must Act to Ensure Private Location Data Is Not Used By Extremist Prosecutors To Prosecute Women

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., revealed today that an anti-abortion political group used mobile phone location data to send targeted misinformation to people who visited any of 600 reproductive health clinics in 48 states. In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission, Wyden urged the government to act quickly to protect the privacy of patients, and to hold the data broker accountable for misleading statements about its actions. 

As a result of the Dobbs decision, which reversed Roe v. Wade and allowed states to criminalize abortion, privacy of location data has become increasingly important. Wyden began investigating a data broker named Near Intelligence in 2023, after the Wall Street Journal reported that an anti-abortion organization named The Veritas Society used cell phone location data shared with online advertising companies to target misinformation about reproductive health to people who visited Planned Parenthood locations in Wisconsin. 

In response to questions from Sen. Wyden’s office, an official at the advertising agency used by The Veritas Society said the campaign actually targeted people who visited 600 Planned Parenthood locations, in 48 U.S. states. An official for Near also confirmed that the data broker also provided Americans’ location data to a defense contractor, which the Journal previously revealed was providing location data to the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies.

“If a data broker could track Americans’ cell phones to help extremists target misinformation to people at hundreds of Planned Parenthood locations across the United States, a right-wing prosecutor could use that same information to put women in jail,” Wyden said. “Federal watchdogs should hold the data broker accountable for abusing Americans’ private information. And Congress needs to step up as soon as possible to ensure extremist politicians can’t buy this kind of sensitive data without a warrant.”

The news comes as the U.S. Congress is poised to debate restricting the government’s purchase of sensitive information, such as the location data used by anti-abortion groups. Wyden and a broad coalition of civil liberties groups on both sides of the aisle have proposed limiting when the government can effectively end-run the Fourth Amendment by buying data without getting a warrant.

In order to protect patients against future abuse of their data, Wyden asked the FTC to ensure that all location and device data held by Near about Americans is destroyed, rather than sold off to another company or data broker during the company’s bankruptcy proceedings. He also asked the SEC to investigate whether Near violated securities laws by making misleading statements about its interactions with Congress and about whether its data was obtained with users’ consent (it was not). 

Read the full letter here.