Data brokers resist pressure to stop collecting information on pregnant women

But in the absence of federal data privacy legislation or any likely possibility that it will gain the necessary support to pass, many brokers ignore it.

POLITICO found more than 30 lists of data brokers offering information on expectant parents or selling access to such people through mass emailing. Twenty-five of them were updated after the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe vs. Wade June 24.

Exact Data, a data broker that offers the names, emails and postal addresses of more than 23,000 expectant parents, updated its inventory on August 1. according to its listing on NextMark, a directory of marketing mailing lists.

NextMark CEO Joe Pych said he sees no problem with hosting these lists.

“As far as I know, there is no law today prohibiting prenatal mailing lists. If that were to change and this type of data became illegal, we would work with providers to remove these listings,” Pych said. NextMark itself does not collect or sell any data. Neither PK List Marketing nor Exact Data responded to requests for comment.

Abortion rights groups and lawmakers on their side say such information has become dangerous, exposing pregnant women to legal action both if they seek an abortion or even if they simply seek reproductive care that could be interpreted as such.

“It is grossly irresponsible for a data broker to stick its head in the sand and claim that its business of tracking pregnancies and selling this information for profit will not be weaponized by far-right extremists” , said the senator. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who presented the Law My body, my data of 2022 to limit the collection of reproductive health data, said in an email.

The risk is not hypothetical. Police have used digital evidence such as text messages and search histories in the past to enforce abortion laws. In 2015, Indiana prosecutors used a woman’s online search history as evidence to prove she illegally induced her own abortion. She was convicted of feticide.

Data brokers who accumulate collections on pregnant women say they get this information from sources such as online activities, surveys, magazine subscriptions and purchases from businesses like clothing stores. of maternity. The privacy policies of several data brokers state that they would share data with law enforcement in response to a warrant.

Lawmakers have had a handful of successes with their lobbying campaign. Data brokers SafeGraph and stopped offering data on abortion clinics in the United States after Vice articles exposed their practices and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called Businesses. Tech companies like Google have responded by pledging to remove location data logs from abortion clinics,

But shame is the main tool at their disposal, and an unwieldy tool when the data brokerage industry is made up of hundreds of small companies that aren’t very well known. This is especially true for data on pregnant women given that one of the biggest players, Experian, stopped offering such datasets in 2016. Experian hasn’t explained why it stopped. provide this data set.

“When companies and their executives are called out by name — in the media, online, and especially by members of Congress — they pay more attention,” said Justin Sherman, who leads a brokerage research project. data at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. . “At the same time, data brokers are under no illusions that Congress is likely to pass privacy regulations soon.”

Lawmakers have tried and failed to pass data privacy regulations for years. Congress has made progress in recent months on a bipartisan bill, US privacy and data protection lawwho left the committee July 20. But he doesn’t have Sen’s support. Maria Canwell (D-Wash.), who heads the Senate Commerce Committee, making it unlikely to pass.

Cantwell argued that the bill lacks strong enforcement and supports its own legislation, the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act.

And the two bills introduced specifically to block the collection of health-related data are only supported by a handful of Democrats and are unlikely to gain wider support.

In July, Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) said it intends to identify and send letters to any entity that collects, uses, sells or discloses data that could be used against pregnant women.

“At the bare minimum, these companies should stop collecting or deriving sensitive data such as reproductive health data,” Trahan said in an email. His message to businesses: “Stop putting your bottom line above everything else.”

Exact Data sells a dataset with contact information such as name, email and mailing addresses for up to 23,217 intended parents for around $2,786. MedicoReach sells similar raw data on pregnant women, along with location, age, and income. MedicoReach also did not respond to a request for comment.

Such The datasets offer important information about thousands of expectant parents, including purchase history, the states they live in, and when they are due to give birth. While all of this information is useful to a trader, it could be used to identify people who terminate pregnancies in states that ban abortion — or who engaged in allegedly risky behavior that authorities could blame for the death of the fetus.

Complete Medical Lists, for example, offers a mailing list with over 585,000 mailing addresses for expectant parents and 185,593 email addresses. Data from people in 10 states where abortions are banned make up nearly half of the data set.

Tim Burnell, owner of Complete Medical Lists, dismissed the idea that it could be dangerous.

“I just can’t imagine a scenario where a law enforcement agency could get a subpoena for basically every new self-reported pregnancy in the United States,” Burnell said.

Reach Marketing also offers a mailing list, with a collection of 818,000 expectant mothers, containing data on when they are expected to give birth, as well as information such as their purchase history.

Both don’t sell the data they collect and only offer personalized email sends, but their collections could be made available to law enforcement. Reach Marketing’s privacy policy stated that the company could provide data to law enforcement upon request. Also complete the Medical Lists privacy policy says it would share data in response to a warrant.

The level of detail in these lists could be combined in dangerous ways, lawmakers say. A prosecutor in a state where abortion is illegal could subpoena data on pregnant women in the state and combine it with location data from another data broker to show that a person crossed borders. from the state to an abortion clinic, for example.

“Americans can’t trust data brokers to keep their most personal information private — and that puts women at risk,” said Warren, who introduced one of the bills banning data brokers from sell health data, Health and Location Data Protection Act.

representing Anna Eshoo (D-California), which introduced a bill banning targeted advertising in January, called on companies to stop collecting women’s health data altogether.

“Data brokers and all companies that collect personal data have an obligation to ensure that women’s intimate health data is not collected in the first place, allowing prosecutors in states that criminalize abortion to use them against women,” Eshoo said in an email.

The data brokers who quit did not give clear reasons. said it was not in the company’s “commercial interests” to provide information about Planned Parenthood clinics, while SafeGraph gave no reason why it stopped selling this location information.

In general, data brokers claim that their tools are beneficial resources for expectant mothers. NextMark’s Pych noted that the company’s mailing lists help new parents get discounts on necessities like diapers and formula.

And some of the mailing list providers say they would not allow these lists to be used for campaigns for or against abortion rights.

Josephine Messina, vice president of direct marketing services at Reach Marketing, said the company must approve all email broadcasts and will not allow ads for abortion pills or crisis pregnancy centers, clinics that opponents of abortion rights have set up to counsel pregnant women. people against abortion.

Burnell said comprehensive medical lists require similar approvals for email sends and would also not approve such advocacy ads. He said the company had no plans to stop collecting data on pregnant women, but that could change if it was used to target people seeking abortions.

“If an entity attempted to weaponize a marketing list, we would definitely reconsider,” he said.

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