A data broker's post-Roe reckoning
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.Sign up here to get it in your inbox every day.
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People are talking
Bill Gates isn't sure Elon Musk is the right person to buy Twitter:
- "He actually could make it worse."
Gavin Newsom wants to get ahead on Web3 regulation:
- “Too often government lags behind technological advancements, so we’re getting ahead of the curve on this.”
Bungie is the only big gaming company to speak out about the Roe v. Wade draft opinion:
- “The leaked draft decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade represents a blow to freedom in America and is a direct attack on human rights.”
Exchange is buying Black Knight, which gives real estate and housing markets software and data analytics solutions, in a $13.1 billion deal.
Publicis Groupe bought Profitero, an ecommerce software firm that offers data for brands, for around $200 million, sources told The Wall Street Journal.
Cameo laid off 87 staffers yesterday. The cuts affect company execs including CTO Rob Post, marketing leader Emily Boschwitz, CPO Nundu Janakiram and Chief People Officer Melanie Steinbach.
Tom Fuelling is TuneIn’s new CFO. He’s held the same role at companies like Hulu and OpenX.
In other news
Meta has a hiring freeze in place for the rest of the year. Blame slow revenue growth, Apple's data privacy changes and the war in Ukraine, the company said.
Elon Musk got some new investors on board. He secured about $7.1 billion of financing commitments from Binance and other large investors.
Disney+ is looking into password sharing. The streaming service sent out a survey to subscribers in Spain asking why they share passwords, which could mean it's making the issue more of a priority.
Google is reworking its performance review process to take place once instead of twice a year, sources told The Information. The new process is also less time intensive.
TikTok will finally let creators make money from ads. The platform introduced TikTok Pulse, a new program that allows brands to place ads next to top content.
Sonos is looking to launch its own voice assistant service, sources told The Verge. It’s called Sonos Voice, and the company is reportedly preparing to introduce it on June 1.
Binance can operate out of France, the country’s Financial Markets Authority decided. It’s the crypto exchange’s first big win in Europe.
NFTs are sacred now, because the Vatican said so. It’s starting an NFT gallery featuring art and history.
Bill Gates doesn’t own the most U.S. farmland, in case you were wondering. Despite claims to the contrary, he only holds a meager 270,000 acres.
Stanford University now has a climate school. VC John Doerr gave $1.1 billion to the college to start a school focused on sustainability.
How do you take your mind off things?
This week has been … a lot. It’s hard to log off Twitter and stop reading the news, so we want to know how you take your mind off things.
Do you follow all the doomscrolling reminder bots on Twitter? If so, which ones? Do you set time limits for scrolling through Instagram? Do you use an app, like Headspace, to wind down? Or do you just throw your phone across the room? Respond to this email and let us know, and we’ll round up our favorites in the Sunday edition of Source Code.
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