Warren proposes sweeping ban on sales of location and health data

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While the Supreme Court’s expected decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade looms in Washington, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced sweeping legislation to ban the sale of location and health data.

The Warren Health and Whereabouts Protection Act — co-sponsored by a slate of Democratic senators including Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) — would prohibit “data brokers from selling or to transfer location data and health data”. There are few limits, making the bill one of the most strident proposals to regulate data sales.

“Data brokers profit from the location data of millions of people, putting Americans everywhere at serious risk by selling their most private information,” Warren said in a statement Wednesday. “With this hardline Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and states seeking to criminalize essential health care, it’s more crucial than ever for Congress to protect sensitive consumer data.”

If approved, the bill would empower the Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general and those harmed by an illegal sale of data to sue brokers found guilty of violating the law. The FTC would also receive an additional $1 billion over the next decade to help enforce the law. The only exceptions to the bill apply to specific activities protected by HIPAA or the First Amendment, depending on the text of the bill.

Motherboard was the first to report on Warren’s bill on Wednesday, after weeks of reporting describing how companies are selling location data belonging to smartphone users who have visited abortion clinics. In May, Motherboard reported that a location data company, Placer.ai, has allowed users to create “heat maps” of where visitors to abortion clinics live.

“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. This amounts to womb surveillance,” Wyden said in a Wednesday statement. “Congress must protect the privacy of Americans from abuse by far-right politicians who want to control women’s bodies.”

Last month, Warren signed a letter, led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), asking FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan to explain how the consumer protection agency is investigating potential abuses of location and what resources it might need to better protect consumers.

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