Location data broker SafeGraph stops selling information on visits to abortion providers

People protest after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, preparing for a majority of the court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision later this year, in New York City, U.S., May 3, 2022. 

Yana Paskova | Reuters

The online data-location broker SafeGraph said it has stopped selling information on visits to abortion clinics after a report from Vice revealed how easily the data could be purchased, raising concerns that “anti-abortion vigilantes” could use it to target providers and their clients.

Vice reported Tuesday that it purchased a week’s worth of location data for more than 600 Planned Parenthood locations across the United States for just over $160 from SafeGraph.

Some of those locations offer abortion services, according to the report.

And the data showed where groups of people visiting those facilities came from, the duration of their visits and where they traveled afterward, according to the Vice Motherboard article.

SafeGraph, whose investors reportedly have included billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel and a former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, obtains and aggregates location data from apps installed on people’s mobile phones.

The company says that the “Patterns” data of the kind purchased by Vice, which shows how groups of people interact with a given location, is anonymized to protect the privacy of individual visitors.

But Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher, told Vice: “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.”

“This is how you ‘dox’ someone traveling across state lines for abortions — how you dox clinics providing this service,” Edwards said.

Vice’s article was published a day after a Politico report on a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion, which indicates that a majority of justices have voted to overturn the half-century-old Roe v. Wade ruling that says people have a constitutional right to abortions.

If that ends up being the official decision of the high court this summer, the ruling is expected to quickly lead to the banning of abortion, or the severe restriction of the procedure, in up to two dozen states.

That, in turn, is expected to increase the number of people traveling from their home states to obtain abortions at clinics in states where the procedure still would be legal, as has been the case recently since Texas adopted a restrictive new abortion law.

When asked about the Vice article by CNBC on Wednesday, a SafeGraph spokesman emailed a link to an online post titled, “Demystifying the SafeGraph Facts.”

In the post, the company said it “just sells facts,” and “we only sell data about physical places (not individuals).”

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“To our knowledge, nobody has ever used SafeGraph Patterns data for malicious purposes,” the post said. “In fact, the Patterns dataset has mostly been used by 15,000+ researchers and academics and local governments to combat COVID-19.”

“But there are always extreme hypothetical corner cases, and in some cases these are worth actively preventing,” the post noted.

“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,” the post added.

SafeGraph said the removal of this data will affect many academic researchers who want to study the 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,” the company said.

SafeGraph said it will still have data for sale about the locations and operating hours of family planning centers.

“Family Planning centers like Planned Parenthood make their location data public because they want to serve their constituents,” SafeGraph said.

Planned Parenthood made no immediate comment to CNBC about the SafeGraph data.