Privacy Law

FTC suit seeks to stop broker's sales of cellphone data that could be used to track visits to abortion clinics

  • Print

GPS tracking

Image from Shutterstock.

The Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against data broker Kochava Inc. on Monday that seeks to block the company’s sales of geolocation data from mobile devices that could be used to track visits to abortion clinics and other sensitive locations.

The lawsuit alleges that Kochava violated Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which bans unfair or deceptive practices that affect commerce. According to the suit, acts are unfair under Section 5 if they cause or are likely to cause substantial injury to consumers that consumers can’t reasonably avoid themselves and if the injury is not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition.

The FTC wants to halt sales of the data and to require Kochava to delete the information that it has already collected.

According to an Aug. 29 press release from the FTC, Kochava purchases “vast troves of location information derived from hundreds of millions of mobile devices.” Kochava packages the information into customized data feeds that match unique mobile device identification numbers with time-stamped latitude and longitude locations. Kochava tells clients that they can use the data for advertising and to analyze foot traffic at their stores.

The suit says Kochava data could identify the mobile device user by, for example, revealing the location of a mobile device at night when the owners is likely at home. The address could be combined with property records to reveal the mobile device owner’s identity. Users could also be identified by combining the geolocation data with a device’s unique identifier, which is known as a mobile advertising ID or a MAID.

Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in the press release the FTC is taking Kochava to court to protect people’s privacy.

“Where consumers seek out health care, receive counseling, or celebrate their faith is private information that shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder,” Levine said.

Publications with coverage of the FTC suit include NBC News, BuzzFeed News and the New York Times.

Several publications published a statement by Brian Cox, Kochava’s general manager of its online data marketplace.

“Real progress to improve data privacy for consumers will not be reached through flamboyant press releases and frivolous litigation,” Cox said.

Cox noted that the company recently announced a project to remove sensitive location data from its marketplace sales, and its data comes from “consenting consumers.” The company complies with all privacy laws, he said.

Cox added, however, that Kochava is open to settlement talks if they could lead to “effective solutions.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.