“I think it's good that we were called out,” Auren Hoffman, CEO of location data provider SafeGraph, told Protocol on Wednesday.
The company was the subject of a Motherboard story published Tuesday, which reported that SafeGraph sold information showing where groups of people visiting clinics providing family planning and abortion services had traveled from, how long they stayed and where they traveled afterwards. Following the report, SafeGraph said “in light of potential federal changes in family planning access,” it would remove the data associated with family planning center locations from its online self-serve data platform and from the API through which it distributes data to customers.
SafeGraph calls the data it sells showing the locations where anonymized mobile devices move “Patterns” data. It’s the sort of information that’s been sold by location data providers for years to advertisers, real estate developers and other business customers, as well as government customers.
Because SafeGraph and other location providers gather mobile identifiers and precise, time-stamped latitudinal and longitudinal location coordinates, privacy and abortion rights advocates fear that the information could be used to detect when specific people have visited abortion clinics or other sensitive locations, particularly if only a few devices are present in a place at a given time.
But Hoffman said data showing movements to and from family planning centers has no commercial value, despite being available as part of its commercial data products. “We certainly don't know of any commercial reasons for any of this data [about visits to clinics providing abortion services],” he said.
“The only reason is to fulfill our research mission. And none of our commercial customers care about that.” He added, “I didn't even realize, honestly, that we had what we call ‘Patterns’ data on this.”
When asked why the company has ever made such data available commercially, Hoffman said, “Honestly, it's a good question, so we're reviewing it.”
Research data for good — and deflection
However, Hoffman told Protocol that researchers interested in the data are already complaining about its removal.
“Once we decided to take it down, we had hundreds of researchers complain to us about it,” he said. “They want to see, ‘do these new laws dampen family planning visits,’ and stuff like that. And now we're taking that data away from them.”
Hoffman said he did not know any information about specific researchers who have complained, though. “I haven't talked to anyone myself,” he said.
Like other providers of controversial location data, SafeGraph began making its data showing where or how often people moved around the country available for free to nonprofit organizations and government agencies around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The information was used as a means of assessing whether people complied with social distancing rules, for example. In general, the “data for good”-style approach also serves as a way for location data providers to deflect data privacy and security concerns about the information they sell.
Privacy concerns have gotten in the way of data access by researchers in the past. But the same considerations have been used as a convenient argument by companies such as Meta when it comes to data transparency and access to academic researchers.
Hoffman has made a point of emphasizing the need to “democratize” access to the location data the company provides. “Part of democratizing access to data means making it available in a self-serve way. But of course, making data convenient and accessible also has drawbacks. It means we aren’t able to fully control who buys the data. But we’ve never tried to censor or hide anything,” Hoffman wrote in a company blog post earlier this week.
Another possible SafeGraph change, but a transparency blindspot
But now Hoffman said that SafeGraph might consider altering its approach to data access. “We could say, only vetted researchers can get access to this data, whereas the broader public can get less access to the data, and that's something we might do. So we are evaluating those types of things.”
Still, even though SafeGraph touts its commitment to data transparency by providing detailed documentation of its data online, the company will not name any of its data suppliers. In fact, for years mobile location data providers have been reluctant to name the ad exchanges, mobile app publishers and mobile data aggregators they partner with to provide the information they transform into data products and services.
“Since our beginning, we’ve been committed to transparency and providing access to high-quality places data without compromising consumer privacy,” the company wrote in a January blog post.
But when asked today whether the company would name any of the partners it works with to supply location data showing patterns of places people visit, Hoffman said he could not. Why? NDAs, he said.