Tech companies offer abortion assistance after Roe v. Wade

“I think it’s very useful to help us understand how people respond to laws like SB 8 or the repeal of Roe v. Wade,” Andersen said. He was referring to SafeGraph data and its use in research measuring the effects of the Texas Senate Bill 8, which bans most abortions after six weeks, and the possible decision of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“I’m kind of frustrated that they did it, but I understand why they did it too. Andersen said regarding the SafeGraph data removal, I think the decision to remove the family clinic’s data is a defensible one.

SafeGraph said May 3 that it will cut access to travel-related data to and from Family Planning Center sites from its online self-service data platform and from the API through which it distributes data to clients and researchers. The company sells data to corporate and government clients showing where anonymous mobile devices have been detected to indicate where people have traveled from, how long they have stayed and where they have traveled next. The company cited “potential federal changes to access to family planning services” as the reason for its decision to remove access to the data.

However, while the move was designed to protect people’s privacy, it has had broader implications for researchers studying the impact of laws on access to reproductive health services.

said Jason Lindo, an economics professor at Texas A&M University who studies the impact of abortion restrictions on access to reproductive health care and the amount of travel needed to obtain it.

“There are a lot of big questions regarding who abortion clinics serve, how far women come in seeking care, and what factors influence how much care they can provide,” said Lindo, who did not use SafeGraph data personally.

“If Roe falls this summer, as it certainly seems a very different possibility, and policymakers and the public try to understand the effects of the state’s abortion ban, this data will allow us to have a near-immediate window into what will happen as women,” said Caitlin Knowles-Myers, professor of economics at Middlebury College. Travel across state lines.” She also did not use SafeGraph data in her research, but said one of her students did.

“There is certainly a potential role for this type of location data to provide really fast, high-repetition evidence about the effects of restrictions on people seeking abortions,” Knowles-Myers said. And location data can fill in data gaps, she said, because some states don’t track how many abortions are performed in their regions — when they do, it can take years for this vital statistical data to be released.

Ethical gray areas

While some academic researchers believe mobile location data showing travel to and from abortion clinics — such as what SafeGraph provided — is useful for their work, recent state laws limiting abortion services and the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade have revealed. Privacy risks associated with the easy availability of location data.

The situation highlights a complex debate that has plagued researchers, particularly those who need sensitive healthcare-related data. Researchers want data, and a digital world increasingly enabled by connected mobile communications is creating new forms of information that can provide valuable new insights for researchers. However, researchers are concerned about the privacy of research topics, and must adhere to privacy rules and the use of Academic Review Board data.

“We see this problem constantly — the trade-off between access and privacy,” Andersen said.

For example, in the past, privacy and intellectual property protections had limited data details and researchers’ access to Facebook data; Some decided not to use it at all as a result.

Do I have a moral obligation to think about these issues? Yes, and I do, and I don’t have an answer for you yet.

But the use of location data poses dilemmas that go beyond balancing privacy and access.

Most mobile location data providers rely on harvesting and selling people’s personal data obtained through confidential data partnerships with unnamed ad technology companies and mobile app providers, which fuel what many consider surveillance capitalism. Technology and data providers are sometimes eager to open up access to their information for research, not only because it helps demonstrate the value of their products and promote their companies, but because it gives them a “data for good” cover in case they come under heavy criticism. industry.

“As I watch this conversation about SafeGraph, I am really committed to stopping and thinking about these issues, knowing that more broadly, there is a question about whether people understand their data being collected, whether they really give consent and whether they are likely to They are being manipulated without even realizing it,” Knowles-Myers said.

Do I have a moral obligation to think about these issues? Yes, and I do, and I don’t have an answer for you yet,” she said.

SafeGraph declined to comment for this story.

Search based on location data used in court

Andersen told the protocol that he has two research papers in progress that draw on data from SafeGraph, both related to travel associated with abortion clinics: one analyzing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and one focusing on the impact of SB 8 on travel to reproductive health facilities.

Andersen said SafeGraph data he had already downloaded showed the number of unique devices that moved from a given census block to a reproductive health clinic on a weekly and monthly basis. SafeGraph’s decision means that it will not be able to gather up-to-date information showing the future effects of legal abortion restrictions for comparison with that historical data.

Andersen also co-authored a 2020 research paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research that used SafeGraph foot traffic data to estimate the impact of early COVID-19-related state shutdowns on the number of abortions that may have been performed.

Research identifying travel burdens resulting from abortion restrictions has been considered in abortion-related legal cases since the 2016 Supreme Court case Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which the court ruled that Texas cannot place restrictions on abortion services that create an undue burden on people seeking to an abortion.

“In the case of reproductive health care and abortion access, the research was important. Showing how travel distance affects abortion rates has been used by courts to determine that laws have created an undue burden,” Lindo said.

While Lindo has not used SafeGraph data in his work, his research identifying the degree to which abortion rates drop when people have to travel farther to reach an abortion provider than they would have without imposed restrictions has been used to inform the court’s decision to block implementation of the Arkansas law.

Research by Lindo and Knowles-Myers that predicted the effects on travel distances to access abortion services if Roe v. Wade was invalidated or significantly weakened was cited in a 2021 Friend’s Brief submitted to the Supreme Court.

The nuances of location data privacy

Mobile location data has been the subject of significant scrutiny by privacy, data security and human rights advocates for many years. Amid the threat of more abortion bans, there is more concern than ever that location data could be used by law enforcement officials, government agencies or private people to reveal which clinics provide abortions between states, or people who obtain abortion services outside their states. original.

When Motherboard reported last week that another location data company,, provided easy access to data showing the approximate home locations of visitors to select family planning facilities, Senator Ron Wyden linked to the article on Twitter, noting “research into birth control online, or Update an app to track your period or bring a phone to a doctor’s office that can be used to track and prosecute women across the US” Wyden referred to the proposed Fourth Amendment to the Not for Sale Act, which he said would “make it more difficult for Republican states to prosecute anyone seeking abortions.” By weaponizing their personal information.”

But some researchers say they value SafeGraph data because, unlike other location data providers they can buy from, SafeGraph delivers traffic data according to census block groups rather than providing device-level information or precise GPS coordinates.

“I could go out and buy a device-wide dataset, but there’s no way I could go into that” — he feels more comfortable using SafeGraph data for that reason, Andersen said.

While Andersen and others argue that the SafeGraph approach provides a greater degree of anonymity than other location data providers provide, in cases where a small number of devices appear in a particular location, enumeration block level information can even be used to identify a person.

A chance to compromise?

Already, academic researchers must meet review boards criteria to get approval for their research plans, including data sources. “Researchers are very used to dealing with these circumstances using these types of sensitive data all the time,” Lindo said. “The balance is knowing how to make sure people are protected.”

Lindo et al suggest that rather than shutting the spigot of abortion clinic data off to everyone, SafeGraph could think of ways to provide it safely to screened researchers. “It is very reasonable for them to ask for it [Independent Review Board] “Agree to buy data,” Lindo said. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”

Knowles-Myers agreed. “I hope there is a middle ground,” she said. “All of these data sellers should think about protecting people anyway.”

In a recent interview with Protocol, SafeGraph CEO Oren Hoffman said the company might consider changing its approach to data access. “We can say, ‘Only researchers who have been screened can access this data, while the broader public can have less access to the data,’ and that’s something we can do. So we evaluate those kinds of things,” he said.

“Overall, we will support truncated searches, especially if they focus on well-vetted institutions,” said Caitlin Seely George, campaign manager at Fight for the Future, a digital and privacy rights group. Ultimately, she said, the federal government should step in to define national rules regarding data use.

“We need data privacy legislation, because in the end, we can’t rely on companies to decide to engage only with researchers,” Seely George said. “They will do what makes the most money, which is probably sell that data to anyone who wants to buy it.”

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