SafeGraph, a location data broker, has stopped offering data related to Planned Parenthood and other similar family planning centers after Motherboard found it was possible to buy information on how many people were visiting the facilities, where they came from, and where they went afterwards, something that experts saw as highly concerning in the wake of the Supreme Court’s potential plan to repeal Roe v. Wade.
SafeGraph’s response Tuesday night shows that location data brokers do and can make decisions about what specific sets of data to make available for purchase.
“In light of potential federal changes in family planning access, we're removing Patterns data for locations classified as NAICS code 621410 (‘Family Planning Centers’) from our self-serve ‘shop’ and API to curtail any potential misuse of its data,” Auren Hoffman, SafeGraph’s CEO, wrote in a blog post published on SafeGraph’s website on Wednesday.
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SafeGraph sells access to several different types of data. Those include information on where businesses or other points of interest are physically located in the world; aggregated transaction data on how much money people spend at them; and aggregated location data showing where groups of people who visited these points of interest came from on a census block level, and what other businesses they went to afterwards. That last set of data is based on location information harvested from ordinary apps installed on peoples’ smartphones.
On Tuesday Hoffman tweeted that “we don’t sell any data on individuals.” But in some cases SafeGraph also sells device-specific location data. Activist organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation previously found that SafeGraph sold disaggregated location data to the Illinois Department of Transportation.
On Tuesday Motherboard searched the SafeGraph online shop for “Planned Parenthood” and found the broker had already listed the organization as a “brand” that it had data on. Motherboard also searched for “Family Planning,” which returned a relevant result of “Family Planning Centers.” Motherboard then paid just over $160 for a week’s worth of aggregated location data and other information related to Planned Parenthood facilities.
Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who closely follows the data trading marketplace, reviewed the SafeGraph data Motherboard purchased and said “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.”
“SafeGraph is going to be the weapon of choice for anti-choice radicals attempting to target ‘out of state clinics’ providing medical care,” he added.
In his blog post, Hoffman wrote “We don’t have any indication that this data has ever been used for bad purposes. We have had many academics that have used this type of data for really good purposes. Taking away this data will impact many academics that want to study this topic (like understanding the impact of legislation on family planning visits). We acknowledge that our decision to take down Patterns for family planning centers could negatively impact this valuable research, but we think this is the right decision given the current climate.”
SafeGraph stands out in the location data industry because it does make the data very easy for anyone to buy, with a self-serve shop that requires no verification on who the buyer is. This could benefit businesses who may only want to buy a small slice of data. But that raises that risk of those who want to abuse the data more readily getting their hands on it.
“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’s blog post added.
Motherboard noticed that results for Planned Parenthood and Family Planning had been removed from the SafeGraph store on Tuesday. SafeGraph’s press email address and the company’s CEO Auren Hoffman did not respond to requests for comment on why this was the case on Tuesday. On Wednesday, SafeGraph published its blog post. On Tuesday, Motherboard reported that the CDC developed a long list of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related use cases for $420,000 worth of location data it bought from SafeGraph in 2021.
“These decisions are never easy and there will certainly be more conflicting situations in the future,” Hoffman added.