Senators urge FTC probe of data tracking in the wake of Roe overturn

The letter, sent by four Democratic senators, asks the FTC to consider how Apple and Google have fostered this harmful data-collection industry.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren addresses the public during a rally to protest the US Supreme Courts ove...

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade, concerns about data-collection by smartphone apps — particularly those related to fertility and women’s bodies — have risen to new highs. Four U.S. senators wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking the agency to investigate how Apple and Google are complicit in the sale of personal data without users’ consent.

“The FTC should investigation 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 letter, which is addressed to FTC chair Lina Khan, states. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) signed the letter.

The collection of smartphone data has ballooned into one of the world’s most lucrative industries in the last decade, and users are finally catching on to just how predatory that market is. Both Apple and Google have introduced features meant to give smartphone owners more control over how their personal data is being used, but these solutions leave much to be desired.

Complicity — Though Apple and Google are not the ones actually stockpiling information from period-tracking apps, they do have a big hand in allowing third-party companies to do so. App creators would never be able to harvest and sell this data without permission from those corporations creating smartphone operating systems.

The letter focuses on the systems built into iOS and Android, which utilize tracking IDs to supposedly anonymize collected data. “These identifiers have fueled the unregulated data broker market by creating a single piece of information linked to a device that data brokers and their customers can use to link to other data about consumers,” the letter states.

The senators acknowledge that both Google and Apple have recently taken steps to give consumers more control over their data. But both companies have spent many years failing to warn their users about the data being collected, and these new options aren’t always as protective as Apple and Google make them seem.

Lots more war to fight — The overturn of Roe v. Wade has rapidly brought data-collection practices — and their connections to government bodies — into mainstream discourse. That conversation goes well beyond just period-tracking apps, though. These senators are right to call out Google and Apple here, as Big Tech has, for the right price, been more than willing to turn a blind eye to potential harm.

Advocacy groups have been sounding the alarm on Big Tech’s culpability in this industry for years now. Until the FTC takes action to protect consumers against this still-thriving data industry, it’s complicit in the fallout, too.