WASHINGTON — Democratic representatives are widening their scrutiny into the role of tech companies in collecting the personal data of people who may be seeking an abortion, as lawmakers, regulators and the Biden administration grapple with the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling last month ending the constitutional protections for abortion.
In a new volley of congressional letters, six House Democrats have asked the top executives of Amazon’s cloud-service network and major cloud provider Oracle about the companies’ handling of consumers’ location data from mobile phones, and what steps they have taken or planned to protect the privacy rights of individuals seeking information on abortion.
The decision by the court’s conservative majority to overturn Roe v. Wade has resulted in strict limits or total bans on abortion in more than a dozen states. About a dozen more states are set to impose additional restrictions. 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, location data, text messages and emails, and even apps that track periods could be used to prosecute people who seek an abortion — or medical care for a miscarriage — as well as those who assist them, experts say.
Privacy advocates are watching for possible new moves by law enforcement agencies in affected states — serving subpoenas, for example, on tech companies such as Google, Apple, Bing, Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp, services like Uber and Lyft, and internet service providers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Comcast.
“Data collected and sold by your company could be used by law enforcement and prosecutors in states with aggressive abortion restrictions,” the House Democrats, led by Rep. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts, said in the letters. “Additionally, in states that empower vigilantes and private actors to sue abortion providers, this information can be used as part of judicial proceedings.
“When consumers use apps on their phone and quickly tap ‘yes’ on ‘use geolocation data’ pop-ups, they should not be worried about the endless sale of their data to advertisers, individuals or law enforcement. And it most certainly should not be used to hunt down, prosecute and jail an individual seeking reproductive care. Companies can take action today to protect individual rights.”
The letters also went to executives of Near Intelligence Holdings and Mobilewalla. Along with Oracle and Amazon Web Services’ Data Exchange, the companies were described as leading data brokers — businesses that gather, sell or trade location data from mobile phones, which could be used to track people who have visited abortion clinics or have gone out of state seeking abortion services.
Five other Democrats active in tech issues signed the letters with Trahan: Reps. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Yvette Clarke of New York, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, Adam Schiff of California and Sean Casten of Illinois.
Spokespeople for Amazon and Oracle didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Also this week, Massachusetts’ two U.S. senators, Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, sent letters to four companies raising concerns that the software they use to monitor students’ online communications could be used to punish students who seek information about abortion services and reproductive health care. They asked the companies — Bark Technologies, Gaggle.net, GoGuardian and Securly — whether their software flags students’ online searches for abortion and other related terms.
“It would be deeply disturbing if your software flags words or activity that suggest students are searching for contraception, abortion or other related services, and if school administrators, parents and even law enforcement were potentially informed of this activity,” Warren and Markey wrote.
Generally, the so-called “ed tech” companies say the monitoring is intended to stop the next school shooter or student suicide, and that the scans are mostly limited to school e-mails or activity on school computers or internet networks, not private accounts.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden, under mounting pressure from fellow Democrats to be more forceful in response to the Supreme Court ruling, signed an executive order to try to protect access to abortion. The actions Biden outlined are intended to head off some potential penalties that women seeking abortion may face after the ruling, but his order cannot restore access to abortion in the more than a dozen states where strict limits or total bans have gone into effect.
Biden also asked the Federal Trade Commission to take steps to protect the privacy of those seeking information about reproductive care online. On June 24, the day the high court announced its decision, four Democratic lawmakers asked the FTC to investigate Apple and Google for allegedly deceiving millions of mobile phone users by enabling the collection and sale of their personal data of all kinds to third parties.
In May, several Senate Democrats 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.
Story by Marcy Gordon