SafeGraph Investor Selling His Stake, Donating the Money to Planned Parenthood

An investor in SafeGraph, a data broker that Motherboard reported was selling location data of people who visited Planned Parenthood clinics that offered abortion services, is planning to sell his stake in the company and donate the proceeds to Planned Parenthood, according to Norwegian publication Dagens Næringsliv.

The news signals continued fallout for the data broker, which decided to stop selling access to the data via its online shop and API after Motherboard’s report. Auren Hoffman, SafeGraph’s CEO, also told tech publication Protocol that other changes may be coming, and Motherboard has found that SafeGraph banned the use of its data for analyzing protests on Wednesday, something which multiple researchers had already done.

“This is a good example of how not to use data.” Are Traasdahl, who participated in SafeGraph’s Series A funding round in 2017, told Dagens Næringsliv, responding to Motherboard’s report.

Traasdahl said he is selling his shares and donating the generated money to Planned Parenthood.

“I contacted the investment team that has the relationship with the company now when they woke up here in the US, and have told them to sell the shares and give the money to Planned Parenthood,” he added.

Do you work in the location data industry or how know else the data is being used? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

SafeGraph sells both raw and aggregated location data products. The location data itself is harvested from ordinary apps installed on peoples’ phones. Often app developers enter agreements with companies to provide their users’ location data in exchange for payment.

Earlier this week Motherboard bought a week’s worth of aggregated SafeGraph location data related to Planned Parenthood locations for $160. The data showed where groups of people visiting the locations came from, how long they stayed at the facilities, and where they then went afterwards.

“It’s bonkers dangerous to have abortion clinics and then let someone buy the census tracks where people are coming from to visit that abortion clinic,” Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who reviewed the data for Motherboard, said at the time. One major concern was that such data could be used by malicious parties to figure out which clinics were providing out-of-state abortions, something that will become a crime in many states once the Supreme Court repeals the protections offered by Roe v. Wade.

Beyond delisting the Planned Parenthood and other family planning center data from public purchase, SafeGraph has made more changes in the wake of Motherboard’s report. On Wednesday, a SafeGraph employee announced on the company’s community forums that researchers would no longer be allowed to use SafeGraph data for monitoring protests. 

“We recently made changes to the terms and conditions for using our Patterns product that may impact your ability to use SafeGraph data in your research,” the post read, referring to SafeGraph’s aggregated location data product called “Patterns.”

“Beginning with the May 2022 release, SafeGraph Patterns data cannot be used to analyze, study, or report on protests or social demonstrations. This is inclusive of the May 2022 release and applies to all subsequent releases of SafeGraph Patterns,” the post added.

In the interview with Protocol published Wednesday, SafeGraph CEO Hoffman said he “didn’t even realize” his company had location data related to family planning centers. He said SafeGraph might change its approach to data access.

“We could say, only vetted researchers can get access to this data, whereas the broader public can get less access to the data, and that’s something we might do. So we are evaluating those types of things,” he said. The issue with SafeGraph and some similar providers is that the data can either be purchased or accessed by essentially anybody, dramatically increasing the risk that such data poses.

SafeGraph has not responded to Motherboard’s requests for comment.

On Thursday, Motherboard reported that a second location data firm, Placer.ai, had freely accessible heat maps that showed approximately where people who visited Planned Parenthood lived. The company only removed Planned Parenthood data from public search after Motherboard reached out for comment.

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