In what would be a legislative first for the country, a proposed law in Massachusetts promises to put a dent in the data brokerage industry by banning the sale of cellular location data. Suffice it to say, it would be really awesome if the bill passes.
Currently, data brokers can and do sell your cellular location data to whomever they wish. Firms often claim this data is anonymized but it can easily be de-anonymized and there are firms that specialize in doing so. The data brokerage industry is pretty much totally unregulated, allowing for an assortment of unsavory customers to buy Americans’ data. Those customers include our own intelligence agencies, hostile foreign governments and just random creeps.
Thankfully, the Location Shield Act would outlaw “selling, leasing, trading, or renting location data” across Massachusetts and would also force companies to get consent if they even wanted to collect or process such data. Companies that did not comply with the regulations could face state legal action via the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office and would also open themselves up to class-action litigation.
The law was catalyzed by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Ever since federal protections for abortion were abolished, the issue of data privacy has taken on new relevance for women. Rights advocates fear that digital evidence of all sorts (including, potentially, data of the kind that the Shield Act tackles) may be used to prosecute women for breaking abortion laws. As a result, a number of rights groups, including the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, pushed for the adoption of the Shield Act, partially as a means of protecting abortion-seekers from prosecution, should they choose to travel to the state for medical procedures. Massachusetts is considered a safe haven for women from other states who may seek abortions by traveling there.
“Every day, unregulated data brokers buy and sell personal location data from apps on our cellphones, revealing where we live, work, play, and more. To protect our privacy, safety, access to abortion and other essential health care, Massachusetts needs to ban this practice now by passing the Location Shield Act,” the ACLU writes on its website.
Fast Company reports that the bill is largely supported by the state’s Democrat-laden legislature and is “likely to become law.”
If the law passes, it will set a legislative precedent that could spread to many other parts of the country. I truly hope that’s the case. That said, it really speaks volumes about the state of digital privacy in America when a law like this feels like a victory. Shouldn’t keeping location data private just be sorta a given and not a special privilege? Call me old-fashioned but I just don’t think the Department of Homeland Security deserves to know where you are all the time. That seems sorta creepy.