Data Brokers Should Be Held Responsible for Misusing Geolocation Information

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking for action to secure people and investors from Near Intelligence Inc., a publicly owned data broker. Sen. Wyden began investigating Near Intelligence in May 2023 after The Wall Street Journal released a report that showed the nonprofit anti-abortion group in Wisconsin, The Veritas Society, and its use of geolocation data obtained from Near Intelligence to do a false information campaign on females alleged of seeking abortion.

Geolocation information is compiled using code that is included in mobile phone applications. The code obtains location details and transfers them alongside other data from the user’s gadget. The details obtained disclose a person’s activities, such as visits to sensitive areas like reproductive health centers, places of worship, healthcare companies, and other sensitive areas. The geolocation details can be connected to somebody and show the time they stayed at a certain area, with the information specific to several meters.

Recrue Media, the marketing agency of The Veritas Society, employed Near Intelligence to acquire the geolocation details of persons who had been to Planned Parenthood clinics and employed that information for the promotion campaign. Recrue Media performed the advertising campaign for The Veritas Society from November 2019 to the summer of 2022, which coincided with the reverse of the Roe vs. Wade judgment of the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Sen. Wyden talked with Steven Bogue, Recrue Media’s Co-Founder and Managing Principal, on May 19, 2023, who showed that to carry out the specific campaign, his personnel employed the Near Intelligence webpage to geofence Planned Parenthood clinics and parking areas. People who went to one of the 600 Planned Parenthood clinics established in 48 states were then targeted. The Veritas Society explained that in 2020, it executed a campaign that delivered 14.3 million advertisements to women who had been to abortion centers, with the advertisements pushed out to their social media sites on Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

Another investigation of Near Intelligence made by The Wall Street Journal in October 2023 showed that the organization also offered geolocation data for sale to the United States government. Near Intelligence had given the information to a defense company, which marketed the data files to the U.S. intelligence bureaus and the Defense Department. Near Intelligence’s Chief Privacy Officer, Jay Angelo, explained to Sen. Wyden that the company didn’t possess the technical skills to stop consumers from targeting persons who went to sensitive areas. He likewise confirmed that Near Intelligence had given location details to the defense company, AELIUS Exploitation Technologies, for 3 years and that the geolocation data files were compiled without user authorization. The Near Intelligence website mentioned that the information gathered would not be made available to governments. Angelo joined Near Intelligence in June 2022 and evaluated the company’s practices, which exposed that the company was vending geolocation data files to the U.S. government. When the analysis was done, those reports were taken from the website.

Near Intelligence had a specifically terrible financial year and has submitted for bankruptcy. A report presented in its December 11, 2023 bankruptcy hearing established that previous officers are under criminal investigation and that the SEC has begun an investigation of the organization in association with a data breach that occurred in France, which concerned sending the data files of E.U residents to the United States government.

The Federal Trade Commission is stopping the collecting and vending of geolocation data files that were acquired without authorization and has just settled an issue with the data broker X-Mode Social/Outlogic. Sen. Wyden asked FTC Chairman, the Honorable Lina Khan, to stop Near Intelligence from peddling the information it has obtained to another organization or data broker at the time of the company’s bankruptcy hearings and to make sure that the geolocation and device information it retains is once and for all deleted. Sen. Wyden mentioned that in this situation, The Veritas Society performed a false information campaign, although the same geolocation information can be employed by right-wing prosecutors in states with prohibitions on abortions to prosecute women who stop by abortion centers in states where abortions are lawful.

Sen. Wyden likewise wanted the SEC Chair, the Honorable Gary Gensler, to extend the SEC’s scrutiny of Near Intelligence and inspect whether the misleading reports Near Intelligence gave to Congress about whether geolocation data files were gathered with users’ authorization violated securities rules. Federal watchdogs must hold [Near Intelligence] liable for misusing Americans’ private data. And Congress must make sure extremist politicians cannot get this kind of sensitive information without a warrant immediately.

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John Blacksmith

John Blacksmith is a journalist with several years experience in both print and online publications. John has specialised in Information technology in the healthcare sector and in particular in healthcare data security and privacy. His focus on healthcare data means he has specialist knowledge of the HIPAA regulations. John has a degree in journalism.