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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

With few options, Democrats turn to FTC to protect abortion data

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

T.G.I.F! A programming note: The newsletter will be off Monday for the holiday but back Tuesday. 

Below: Planned Parenthood says it’s suspending online tracking of people searching for abortions on its website, and the European Union reaches a major deal on cryptocurrency regulation. First:

With few options, Democrats turn to FTC to protect abortion data

President Biden and Democratic lawmakers are urging the Federal Trade Commission to take greater steps to protect data related to abortions — a tacit acknowledgment that their hands are largely tied to respond to the privacy risks posed by the fall of Roe v. Wade

Biden is preparing a letter that will urge the agency to “bar unfair or deceptive practices related to the reporting, sharing, or sale of sensitive health-related information,” according to Bloomberg News — a bid to minimize how much data is available to law enforcement prosecuting abortions. 

Congressional Democrats are following a similar playbook. 

Last week, four Democratic lawmakers called on the FTC to investigate Apple and Google for tracking information on mobile phones they said could be used by prosecutors to “obtain warrants for location information about anyone who has visited an abortion provider.” 

In May, 16 liberal senators called on the FTC to spell out what steps it’s taking to “ensure data brokers are not collecting, buying, or selling sensitive location data” that could put those seeking medical attention, including abortions, at risk.

“With reproductive rights under attack, we have got to do everything we can to protect women’s privacy when they're looking for care and resources,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who led the May letter, told The Technology 202. “The FTC is an essential partner in this fight.”

These efforts underscore limited legislative options.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats have called for greater federal protections for reproductive health data and other sensitive information that could be used to target those who get abortions in the growing number of states where the medical service is outlawed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Monday that her caucus is exploring legislation that protects “women’s most intimate and personal data stored in reproductive health apps.” And a slew of top Democrats have backed a bill led by Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) to do just that. 

Some Democrats are also calling to expand protections in a broader privacy billl lawmakers are negotiating as another way to target concerns about how data is collected and shared.

But those attempts are sure to run into Republican opposition, making any chance of gaining steam slim. 

Up until now, the Biden administration has largely relied on guidances — nonbinding advisories — to try to prevent personal data from being used to prosecute abortions.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services released guidance to health-care providers reiterating privacy rules preventing them from disclosing medical data. The administration is also “releasing new guidance detailing best practices for women seeking to keep private the health data they might share” on their mobile devices, according to Bloomberg News. But guidance lacks the teeth of regulation and legislation.

Now, Democrats are hoping the FTC picks up more of the slack. But it’s unclear how the agency might move ahead — or how effective it could be.

Hayley Tsukayama, a senior legislative activist at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former Washington Post tech reporter, said typically “the FTC hasn’t been the fastest or most responsive avenue for getting companies to change their behavior.” But, she added, “if there are messages it can send about the role data privacy plays in reproductive justice, that would be a good thing. And it’s certainly in its scope.”

Former FTC chairman William Kovacic said one of the most “immediate” options the agency could pursue would be to challenge data collectors who have violated any confidentiality agreements with users about their health-care history. 

Another approach, he said, would be to target companies that have not implemented adequate safeguards to prevent sensitive data from being shared without consent from their users.

One major challenge: the agency — whose leaders regularly say is understaffed and underfunded — already has plenty on its plate.

“President Biden has been asking the FTC to do a lot of stuff lately,” Kovacic said. “Bring down inflation, reduce the price of gasoline, solve shortages involving infant formula.”

One simple way the agency could have an instant impact, he said, is to signal that it’s monitoring this issue closely, effectively firing a warning shot against data collectors. 

“An important starting point for an agency in the FTC’s position is to tell the larger public: ‘If you see behavior that you fear compromises information about your health and your health-care intentions, tell us about it,’ ” he said.

Our top tabs

Planned Parenthood is removing marketing trackers from abortion searches

Planned Parenthood’s comments came a day after a Washington Post report on an investigation by Lockdown Privacy that found that the organization shared data on people searching for abortions and beginning to schedule appointments with third-party tracking companies, Tatum Hunter reports. Lockdown makes an app that blocks online trackers.

“Let’s be clear: No scheduling or protected health information (PHI) has been breached,” Planned Parenthood chief health-care officer Diana Contreras told The Post. “Out of an abundance of caution, Planned Parenthood will suspend marketing pixels on webpages related to abortion search, and will be engaging with Meta/Facebook and other technology companies about how their policies can better protect people seeking abortion care.”

Planned Parenthood has a separate scheduling and confirmation tool that is compliant with federal health-care privacy law and doesn’t have marketing trackers, the organization said. It said it doesn’t consider the data it has shared with tracking firms to be “scheduling” information, and Contreras added that “it is unconscionable, especially at a time of chaos and confusion in the wake of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, to spread misinformation and elevate bad actors who are intimidating and dissuading people from seeking abortion and other sexual and reproductive health services.”

McConnell threatens to pull GOP support from China competition bill

The bill has billions of dollars in subsidies for semiconductor manufacturers that were included in a China competition bill and garnered bipartisan support. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a tweet that “there will be no bipartisan [competition bill] as long as Democrats are pursuing a partisan reconciliation bill,” referring to a broader spending package that Democrats are trying to work out.

The threat comes as negotiators in Congress work to hammer a deal on the China competition bill by mid-July, Axios’s Hans Nichols reports. “For weeks, Senate Democrats have privately feared that McConnell would force them to choose between a pared-down Build Back Better bill and billions of dollars to help America nurture its own semiconductor industry and compete more effectively against China in key technological domains,” Nichols writes. “Now, the minority leader has made his strategy clear.”

The White House also came out strongly against McConnell’s statement. “We are not going to back down in the face of this outrageous threat,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

European Union reaches deal on cryptocurrency regulation

Under the agreement, there will be common cryptocurrency rules across the European Union’s 27 member states, Bloomberg News’s Emily Nicolle and Jorge Valero report. The rules still have to go through several steps, including votes by the European Parliament and European Council, before they go into effect.

“The European Parliament, Council and Commission approved new provisions on the supervision of cryptoasset service providers (CASPs), consumer protection and environmental safeguards for cryptoassets, including cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ether,” they write. “The European Securities and Markets Authority, or ESMA, will be responsible for oversight of the industry, while a new legal framework will seek to regulate public offers of cryptoassets to protect market integrity.”

Rant and rave

Amazon moved to block sales of LGBTQ-related items and search results in the United Arab Emirates, where homosexuality is illegal, after government pressure, the New York Times's Karen Weise reports. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Writer, professor and editor Roxane Gay:

Technology and civil liberties attorney Matt Cagle:

The Verge editor in chief Nilay Patel:

Inside the industry

Uber releases safety data: 998 sexual assault incidents including 141 rape reports in 2020 (CNN Business)

Meta girds for 'fierce' headwinds, slower growth in second half -memo (Reuters)

Former top Apple lawyer pleads guilty to insider trading (Reuters)

Agency scanner

Biden agenda takes hit from high court intent on limiting it (Bloomberg Law)

Privacy monitor

Arson case may decide if warrants for search histories are legal (Forbes)

Workforce report

Major workers’ union backs Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard deal in FTC letter (Hollywood Reporter)

Trending

The 'Cryptoqueen' is now one of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted (NBC News)

A swarm of Cruise robotaxis blocked San Francisco traffic for hours (Engadget)

Mentions

  • Meaghan Lynch, a senior press secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is joining Airbnb as a public policy manager in mid-July. Lynch was a spokesperson for Vice President Harris when she was a senator.

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