Dobbs and Data Brokers

A frightening alliance

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Dobbs and Data Brokers

Recently in The Bridge, we talked about the multi-billion-dollar business of third-party data brokers, whose trade is snooping through your phone and selling what they find to the highest bidder. It’s bad enough that marketers, scammers, and the like can get their hands on your personal information to target you for their own purposes. But it’s infinitely worse that government agencies like the NSA are frequent buyers in this market too, thanks to loopholes in digital privacy law. Unlike corporations and scam artists, government agencies have the power to investigate, arrest, deport, and use force in executing the law, which makes their access to these tools extremely alarming.

We’ve already seen law enforcement agencies abuse the data broker loophole to track down protestors. Today, we’re going to examine the very real threat of law enforcement using information from data brokers to enforce the Dobbs decision that eliminated the constitutional right to abortion.

In May 2023, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that an anti-abortion group bought cellphone location data from a data broker to send targeted ads to people who had visited Planned Parenthood facilities in Wisconsin, Arkansas, New Jersey, California, and Colorado. Earlier this year, an investigation conducted by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) revealed that the scope of that surveillance was actually far, far larger: The data broker had used cellphone location data to track visits to nearly 600 Planned Parenthood clinics across the country.

Though the purchaser in this case was an anti-abortion group, the data broker could just as easily have sold this location data to law enforcement agencies in the nearly two dozen states where access to abortion is banned or limited — and it could all be done without a warrant.

But location data is not the only digital trail left by our phones. A POGO analysis written before Roe v. Wade’s reversal explains the myriad tools and techniques law enforcement could use to surveil people seeking reproductive health care, including

  • Web browsing: monitoring the digital activity of people who visit websites for reproductive health services
  • Internet search history: tracking those who look up “suspicious” keywords in search engines or on social media
  • Face recognition software: using footage from traffic cameras and CCTV to identify providers of reproductive health care and the patients visiting them
  • Phone calls and text messages: surveilling communications metadata to analyze who is likely to be seeking or helping to provide abortions


Right now, 22 million people live in states where abortion is banned or heavily restricted. And without comprehensive reform, their data could be sold to law enforcement and used against them. The lack of protection of our digital privacy is an enormous oversight that lawmakers need to fix. It’s time to close the data broker loophole.