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Apple and Google should face FTC probe over ad practices that could end up harming abortion-seekers, US lawmakers say

By Brian Fung, CNN Business

The Federal Trade Commission should investigate Apple and Google over what they initially told consumers about how their information would be used for advertising purposes, according to a group of US lawmakers warning that the loosely regulated data industry could result in particular harms to abortion-seekers.

In a letter dated Friday to FTC Chair Lina Khan, the lawmakers wrote that Apple (AAPL) and Google’s (GOOGL) operating systems contain “unique tracking identifiers” that allow marketers to tie a specific device to information from other sources about a person, and that those identifiers can help the ad industry target individual consumers with ads despite all of the data involved being technically anonymous.

While the tech giants now allow consumers to opt out of having their devices tracked this way, the lawmakers wrote, and Apple no longer enables it by default, the FTC should determine whether the companies at the outset sufficiently disclosed the potential risks to consumers of having the device identifiers active. Apple and Google didn’t respond to a request for comment on Friday.

“Apple and Google enabled governments and private actors to exploit advertising tracking systems for their own surveillance and exposed hundreds of millions of Americans to serious privacy harms,” wrote the group, which included Sens. Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Rep. Sara Jacobs.

The letter comes the same day that the US Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion overturning the federal abortion protections in Roe v. Wade. In the letter, the lawmakers warned of the various ways some state governments or their agents could soon try to turn abortion-seekers’ own digital footprints against them, aided by an advertising ecosystem that habitually mixes search, browsing and geolocation data with demographic and public information to zero in on specific individuals.

“Data brokers are already selling, licensing, and sharing the location information of people that visit abortion providers to anyone with a credit card. Prosecutors in states where abortion becomes illegal will soon be able to obtain warrants for location information about anyone who has visited an abortion provider,” the lawmakers wrote. “Private actors will also be incentivized by state bounty laws to hunt down women who have obtained or are seeking an abortion by accessing location information through shady data brokers. The FTC should investigate Apple and Google’s role in transforming online advertising into an intense system of surveillance that incentivizes and facilitates the unrestrained collection and constant sale of Americans’ personal data.”

The tech giants’ practices, the lawmakers said, should be investigated as potentially unfair and deceptive practices that could be prosecuted under the FTC Act. The FTC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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