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A data broker's post-Roe reckoning

Source Code

Good morning! Location data broker SafeGraph found itself at the center of a firestorm this week after a report that the company was selling abortion clinic data to third parties. Its CEO is now making big changes to how the company does business. I’m Kate Kaye, and I already miss AMC’s “Better Call Saul” even though the final season just started.

Rethinking the rules

“I think it's good that we were called out,” Auren Hoffman, CEO of location data provider SafeGraph, told me yesterday.

Like other providers of controversial location data, SafeGraph began making its data — that shows where or how often people move 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.

But according to a Motherboard story published Tuesday, 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.

This sort of information is sold by location data providers to advertisers, real estate developers and other business customers, as well as government customers, and it has been for years. SafeGraph calls the data it sells that shows the locations where anonymized mobile devices move “Patterns” data.

  • 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 that the data showing movements to and from family planning centers has no commercial value, despite being available as part of SafeGraph’s 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.”

SafeGraph announced it would remove the data from its online self-serve data platform and from the API through which it distributes data to customers. But 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.”

Privacy concerns have gotten in the way of data access for 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 for 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.

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," he said. "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 yesterday 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.

Kate Kaye (email | twitter)

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