WASHINGTON – With the Supreme Court ending the constitutional protections for abortion, four Democratic lawmakers are asking federal regulators to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly deceiving millions of mobile phone users by enabling the collection and sale of their personal data to third parties.
The decision Friday by the court’s conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade is expected to lead to abortion bans in about half the states. Privacy experts say that could make women vulnerable because their personal data could be used to surveil pregnancies and shared with police or sold to vigilantes. Online searches, period apps, fitness trackers and advice helplines could become rich data sources for such surveillance efforts.
The request for an investigation of the two California-based tech giants came Friday in a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan. It was signed by Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Rep. Sara Jacobs of California. It was sent shortly before the Supreme Court announced its decision overturning the 1973 precedent and noted that the court was likely to do so.
“Individuals seeking abortions and other reproductive healthcare will become particularly vulnerable to privacy harms, including through the collection and sharing of their location data,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “Data brokers are already selling, licensing and sharing the location information of people that visit abortion providers to anyone with a credit card."
They said prosecutors in states where abortion becomes illegal could soon be able to obtain warrants for location information about anyone who has visited an abortion provider.
"Private actors will also be incentivized by state bounty laws to hunt down women who have obtained or are seeking an abortion by accessing location information through shady data brokers,” the lawmakers wrote.
They asked Khan for an investigation of Apple and Google’s practices in mobile phone users’ data generally. They accused the companies of engaging in “unfair and deceptive practices by enabling the collection and sale of hundreds of millions of mobile phone users’ personal data.”
The companies “knowingly facilitated” the harmful practices by building location identifiers used for advertising into their mobile phone operating systems, the lawmakers said.
FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan confirmed that the agency had received the letter but said there would be no comment on it.
Apple and Google didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The lawmakers’ letter noted that Apple and Google now allow consumers to opt out of the data tracking. However, it said that until recently, Apple enabled the tracking identifier by default and required consumers to dig through confusing phone settings to turn it off. Google still enables it by default, and until recently did not even provide consumers with an opt-out, the letter said.
Last month, Wyden, Warren and Booker, along with Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., urged the CEOs of Google and Apple to prohibit apps on the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store from using data-mining practices that could facilitate the targeting of individuals seeking abortion services.
This story has been corrected to clarify that the lawmakers are criticizing the companies for enabling sales of users' data by others versus selling it themselves.