Jun 14, 2023 - Health

Pro-abortion rights advocates want ban on selling cellphone data

Illustration of chains and padlock wrapped around a phone.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

There's a new effort afoot to restrict cellphone data-sharing, in order to protect the privacy of patients seeking abortions and gender-affirming care in the state.

Driving the news: A coalition of advocacy groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, launched a campaign today to push for a state law banning the sale and trade of cellphone-based location data.

Why it matters: Massachusetts is a safe haven for abortion and gender-affirming care as other states limit access to care, but gaps in health privacy laws enable sensitive health information to land in the hands of prosecutors enforcing those bans, advocates say.

What's happening: Out-of-state patients are unknowingly leaving digital footprints in Massachusetts that can be used against them, says Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

  • Companies can buy and sell sensitive data — like someone’s location or last period — that’s in a phone or smartwatch because HIPAA rules don’t apply to apps used by consumers, Axios' Ashley Gold and Oriana González write.

Context: Doctors in Massachusetts provided abortions to nearly 17,000 patients in 2021, the most recent data available, according to the Department of Public Health. Fewer than 800 people reported coming from out of state.

  • Since Roe was overturned in June 2022, doctors have told advocates they have seen patients from at least 19 states, including Alabama, Florida and Texas, according to a spokesperson for Reproductive Equity Now.

Zoom in: The ACLU-led campaign calls on Beacon Hill to back House and Senate privacy bills currently working their way through committees.

  • A survey of 1,003 voters by the ACLU and Beacon Research found that 92% of Massachusetts voters would support a ban on selling location data.

The big picture: Lawmakers in California and Washington have introduced bills to protect people’s electronic data. The push in Massachusetts seeks to make it the first state with an outright ban on the sale of location-based information.


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