Bill aims to ban sale of location and health data
Legislation introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) Wednesday seeks to rein in the sale of Americans’ sensitive information.
The Health and Location Data Protection Act — co-sponsored Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — comes as the country awaits a Supreme Court opinion on abortion access that has highlighted the lack of control US residents have over information that can reveal sensitive personal health choices.
“With this extremist Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and states seeking to criminalize essential health care, it is more crucial than ever for Congress to protect consumers’ sensitive data,” Warren said in a press release about the legislation.
Early last month, Politico reported that a Supreme Court draft opinion was set to overrule the legal precedent that provides a federal right to terminate a pregnancy. A similar final opinion would trigger laws outlawing abortion in thirteen states — which could lead to law enforcement seeking location data and other information in criminal investigations about people seeking reproductive healthcare.
The new legislation would prohibit the sale or transfer of information about location and health, other than certain categories including those compliant with federal medical privacy regulation, protected by free speech, or disclosed with valid authorization. It would also task the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with developing rules to implement the ban and give the agency $1 billion over the next decade to carry it out. The FTC, State Attorneys General, and individuals would also be able sue violators under the proposal.
Civil liberties advocates have long warned that the vast amounts of data being collected about people online and as they navigate daily life can reveal sensitive information. That data is also often resold through the complex economy that has developed around digital marketing.
However, efforts to address privacy on a federal level are seeing a new push — and have become more urgent in light of the looming Supreme Court opinion.
“When abortion is illegal, researching reproductive health care online, updating a period-tracking app, or bringing a phone to the doctor’s office all could be used to track and prosecute women across the U.S. It amounts to uterus surveillance,” Wyden said in a press release about the legislation.
Dozens of federal lawmakers, led by Wyden, sent a letter to Google last month asking the company to limit location data collection and retention due to the risk that it will be used to prosecute those seeking reproductive healthcare in the near future.
Andrea Peterson (they/them) is a longtime cybersecurity journalist who cut their teeth covering technology policy at ThinkProgress (RIP) and The Washington Post before doing deep-dive public records investigations at the Project on Government Oversight and American Oversight.