Enterprise

SafeGraph is under fire for selling abortion data. Its CEO says more changes are coming.

After it was called out, SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman said it might change its rules for how it provides data to researchers, even though he said this data “has no commercial value.”

SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman

SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman said that SafeGraph might consider altering its approach to data access.

Photo: SafeGraph

“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.

Workplace

An IPO may soon be in Notion’s future

Notion COO Akshay Kothari says there’s room to grow, aided by a new CFO who knows how to take a company public.

Notion has hired its first chief financial officer: Rama Katkar.

Photo: Courtesy of Notion

It’s been a year since Notion’s triumphant $275 million funding round and $10 billion valuation. Since then the landscape for productivity startups trying to make it on their own has completely changed, especially for those pandemic darlings that flourished in the all-remote world.

As recession looms, companies looking to cut costs are less likely to spend money on tools outside of their Microsoft or Google workplace bundles. Enterprise platforms are bulking up and it could spell trouble for the productivity startups trying to unseat them. But Notion COO Akshay Kothari says the company is still aiming to build the next Microsoft, not be the next Microsoft. And in a move signaling a new chapter of maturity, Notion has hired its first chief financial officer: Rama Katkar, Instacart’s former VP of finance.

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

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From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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Fintech

How neobanks are helping consumers game credit scoring

The CFPB says it is closely monitoring secured credit cards offered by neobanks.

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Policy

Steel decided World War II. Chips will decide whatever is next.

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“World War II was decided by steel and aluminum, and followed shortly thereafter by the Cold War, which was defined by atomic weapons,” Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, writes in the introduction to his latest book. So what’s next? According to Miller, the next era, including the rivalry between the U.S. and China, is all about computing power.

That tech rivalry and the story of how the chip industry got from four to 11.8 billion transistors are all part of Miller’s book, “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology,” which comes out Oct. 4. “Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies: three from the U.S., one from Japan, and one from the Netherlands.

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