House poised to restrict data location tracking | News

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BOSTON — House Democrats are pushing to restrict the sale of smart phone location data, which they say is being used to harass and intimidate people seeking abortions and “gender-affirming” health care services.

A proposal teed up for a vote in the House of Representatives on Wednesday would prohibit “data brokering” companies from selling, leasing, trading, or renting location data and require them to get consent from consumers before collecting or processing the information.

The proposal was praised by advocates, who say it would prevent anti-abortion groups from tracking who travels into Massachusetts to get the procedure and protect health care providers whom they say are also being targeted by anti-abortion activists.

“Protecting digital privacy is key to protecting bodily autonomy and reproductive justice in the digital age, said Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in 2022 overturning federal protections for abortions, advocates say “unscrupulous” data brokers have collected and sold the location of people visiting abortion clinics. They say the location data is being used by groups seeking to dissuade women from seeking abortions.

Rebecca Hart-Holder, president of the group Reproductive Equity Now, praised the legislation for responding to the “evolving threat to abortion patients and providers” from “hostile actors” who have targeted their location data.

“We are proud that the House understands that abortion patients are not fully protected until their digital footprint is protected, too,” she said in a statement. “We are optimistic about making progress to protect the deeply sensitive and personal information that location data can reveal about all of us.”

The proposal would allow companies to collect and process location data — with user consent — for legitimate purposes, such as providing requested services to consumers, responding to emergencies such as 911 and to comply with state and federal laws.

Backers of the plan cite a recent poll suggesting that 92% of Massachusetts voters support passing a law to prohibit the sale of personal location data.

Abortion is legal in Massachusetts under a 2020 law, but advocates say the state has become a destination for women coming from other states that banned the procedure or tightened their laws following the Supreme Court’s ruling.

State leaders have also taken steps to shield providers and patients from potential lawsuits filed by groups of other states where abortion is now restricted.

Last month, Gov. Maura Healey signed an executive order reaffirming that the state constitution, laws and court rulings guarantee the right to an abortion, in Massachusetts and that health care providers are required to ensure access to “life-saving and emergency” abortions.

If the House approves the measure, it would still need to pass the Senate before heading to Healey’s desk for consideration.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com.

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