FTC says it will pursue companies that exploit location and health data

Amid renewed privacy concerns after Roe, the FTC has warned companies and data brokers that it would take action against any misuse of health and location data. The agency paused to detail new steps to protect sensitive reproductive health data, but stressed it would hunt down companies that violate existing privacy laws. In a new blog post, the FTC wrote that it is “committed to using the fullest extent of its statutory powers” to protect consumer privacy. It also found that apps that track periods and fertility, as well as any product that collects health or location data, could harm people, especially those who want an abortion.

“The Commission aims to use the full extent of its legal powers to protect consumer privacy. We will vigorously enforce the law when we uncover illegal behavior that exploits an American’s location, health or other sensitive information. The FTC’s past enforcement actions provide a roadmap for companies trying to comply with the law,” Kristin Cohen, acting deputy director of the Department of Privacy and Identity Protection, wrote in the Post.

The FTC’s statement comes just days after the Biden administration’s July 8 executive order on access to abortion, in which it called on the FTC to take steps to protect abortion data, including creating a task force. In light of the Dobbs ruling, digital privacy groups have warned that police can easily use location tracking and other sensitive data to go after those suspected of having an abortion in states where it is now illegal.

Period tracking apps are just one of the many tools that law enforcement agencies can use to frame a case against a person suspected of having an abortion. As both digital privacy groups have noted, fitness trackers, search histories, GPS map apps, and virtually any online activity could be fair game for law enforcement in abortion-banned states. Location data can also be misused. The FTC noted a 2017 case in Massachusetts in which a company sent targeted ads about abortion alternatives to anyone who crossed a “digital fence” outside an abortion clinic.

Perhaps as an example of how aggressively it has been in the past with apps that misuse reproductive health data, the FTC also mentioned a settlement it reached with popular period-tracking app Flo last year. The agency had claimed Flo had shared sensitive health data with outsiders, although he had promised to keep such information private. As a result, Flo agreed to obtain user consent before sharing information with third parties and to conduct an independent privacy review. Flo is hardly the only reproductive health app sharing sensitive user data. A May study by VPN company Surfshark of 20 different period-tracking apps found that nine shared data for third-party ads and ten collected rough location information.

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https://www.engadget.com/ftc-responds-abortion-data-privacy-legal-authorities-030247915.html?src=rss FTC says it will pursue companies that exploit location and health data

Russell Falcon

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