Placer.ai, a location data firm, offers access to multiple caches of data and heat maps on its website that show users where people visiting Planned Parenthood abortion clinics approximately live, raising concerns about how that information could be used by anyone. The data could be used for research about public health and access to abortion providers, but theoretically can also be used by someone to accuse certain clinics of facilitating interstate abortions. Placer.ai only removed the ability to search for Planned Parenthood related data on its website after Motherboard contacted the company for comment on Wednesday.
Location and other data related to abortion clinics has taken on a new significance as a leaked draft opinion indicates the Supreme Court is ready to repeal the decades-old protections of Roe v. Wade to people seeking abortions and those providing them. Anti-abortion activists have previously used similar types of data to send targeted ads to the devices of people in and around Planned Parenthood clinics. A Missouri official previously said the state reviewed Planned Parenthood patient data, in some cases including their menstrual cycles, looking to identify those who had failed abortions.
Many companies have access to location data of people who visited abortion clinics, but it is often not generally available to the public. In Placer.ai’s case, the ease of access is what changes the threat the data poses: it takes a few minutes to create an account and start viewing data related to a specific clinic.
The news follows Motherboard’s report on Tuesday that SafeGraph, another company in the location industry, was selling aggregated location data of people visiting Planned Parenthood facilities. On Wednesday SafeGraph announced it was stopping the sale of this data through its online shop and API.
Do you work in the location data industry or how know else the data is being used? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com.
“Unprecedented visibility into consumer foot-traffic,” Placer.ai’s website reads.
Placer.ai sources its location data from having the developers of ordinary apps install the company’s software development kit (SDK) into their apps. On its website Placer.ai claims to have over 20 million active devices and its code in over 500 apps. “WiFi, GPS, Beacons, and user motion all play a key part in determining accuracy,” the website adds.
On Wednesday Motherboard made a free account on Placer.ai and used the company’s website to search for “Planned Parenthood.” The site returned multiple locations Placer.ai already had data for. Selecting one of those results provided a dashboard of relevant location and other data, including likely demographic information of who attended this particular facility. For example, according to Placer.ai the Planned Parenthood facility Motherboard selected at random was likely to be visited by someone who is Hispanic with an annual income of between $75,000 and $90,000. The results also showed what specific businesses or landmarks they came from to the facility and went to after, and the total number of visitors.
Search results on Placer.ai's website on Wednesday. Redactions by Motherboard. Image: Motherboard.
Most notably, Placer.ai presented a heat map that showed what approximate physical location visitors lived in. For example, for a Planned Parenthood facility in California that Motherboard verified offered abortion services, the heat map showed attendees’ calculated homes were in a city to the south of the clinic, another area to the south east, and in close proximity to the facility itself.
To then access more detailed data from Placer.ai about the specific Planned Parenthood location, a client needs to schedule a meeting with a company sales representative. But the heat maps are available to anyone who takes a few minutes to make a free account.
The concern with showing where people are traveling from to clinics under the looming changes around abortion’s legality is that the data could reveal which clinics are providing out-of-state abortions, something which is set to become a crime in many states if the Supreme Court does repeal Roe v. Wade.
“It's bonkers dangerous to have abortion clinics and then let someone buy the census tracks where people are coming from to visit that abortion clinic,” Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who closely tracks the data selling marketplace, previously told Motherboard in an online chat after reviewing similar data from SafeGraph.
On Thursday Senator Ron Wyden, who has proposed stronger legislation around the sale of location data and whose office has extensively investigated the data trading market, told Motherboard in a statement that “The threat to women’s privacy and safety is not hypothetical—it’s already here.”
“Shady data brokers have already tracked women to and from Planned Parenthood clinics, and sold their information to anyone with a credit card. It has been obvious for years that location data leeched from phone apps is ripe for abuse. Now that the right to legal abortion is under threat, these shady data brokers are putting people’s lives at risk. Every company that collects, stores or sells personal data should be aware that they could soon be a tool for a radical far-right agenda that is trying to strip women of their fundamental privacy rights,” he added.
Placer.ai responded to an emailed request for comment from Motherboard on Wednesday, but ultimately did not provide a statement. Overnight, Placer.ai quietly removed the ability to search for Planned Parenthood from its website.
Updated: This piece has been updated to include a statement from Senator Ron Wyden.