By Carol Kando-Pineda, FTC
For many of us, our mobile phone is a constant companion, with us wherever we go. It’s also constantly collecting information about us, what we do, and where we do it. And unbeknownst to many of us, once that information is collected, much of it gets sold onwards in a murky marketplace of data brokers and advertisers. Because this market for our data is not transparent, it’s almost impossible to figure out who has information about us and what they’re doing with it.
Our phones can also reveal far more about us than we might realize: important details about our lives and where we’ve been. For example, our phones might be periodically sending their exact location to tech companies. This data can pinpoint our comings and goings with startling precision. Think what this might reveal: what therapist you’re seeing, what medical treatment you’re seeking, your visits to places of worship, and even your reproductive choices. This type of tracking can cause enormous harm to consumers, including stigma, emotional distress, discrimination, or even physical violence.
That’s why the FTC has sued Kochava Inc., a location data broker that sells massive amounts of precise location data collected from tens of millions of mobile users. According to the FTC, Kochava typically charges a monthly subscription fee to access its location data — but it’s also offered free samples, requiring only minimal steps to download. The FTC says that Kochava does not remove or obscure from its data feeds the location data pointing to sensitive locations, including locations associated with medical care, places of worship, reproductive health, homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters, and addiction recovery. The result is that any customer of Kochava could track consumers’ visits to these sensitive places. In fact, in its complaint, the FTC explains it was able to identify from Kochava’s data a mobile device that visited a women’s reproductive health clinic and then trace the same device to a single-family residence, likely making it possible to identify the owner of the device.
The FTC says that the sale of this sensitive data, which can pose such an unwarranted intrusion into the most private areas of consumers’ lives, is an unfair business practice and should be stopped. The case is ongoing.