U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has written to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) calling for action to be taken to protect consumers and investors from “the outrageous conduct” of the publicly owned data broker, Near Intelligence Inc. Sen. Wyden launched an investigation in May 2023 of Near Intelligence after a report in The Wall Street Journal revealed the Wisconsin-based non-profit anti-abortion group, The Veritas Society, used geolocation data obtained from Near Intelligence to conduct a misinformation campaign on women suspected of seeking abortion.
Geolocation data is collected through code that is incorporated into mobile phone apps. The code receives location data and transfers it along with other information from the user’s device. The data collected reveals a person’s movements, including visits to sensitive locations such as reproductive health clinics, places of worship, healthcare providers, and other sensitive locations. The geolocation data can be tied to an individual and reveals how long they were present at a particular location, with the data accurate to a few meters.
The Veritas Society’s advertising agency, Recrue Media, used Near Intelligence to obtain the geolocation data of individuals who visited Planned Parenthood clinics and used that data for the advertising campaign. Recrue Media conducted the campaign for The Veritas Society From November 2019 through the summer of 2022, when Roe vs. Wade was overturned following the decision of the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Sen. Wyden spoke with Steven Bogue, Co-Founder and Managing Principal of Recrue Media, on May 19, 2023, who revealed that to conduct the targeted campaign, his employees used the Near Intelligence website to geofence Planned Parenthood clinics and parking lots. Individuals who visited any of the 600 Planned Parenthood clinics in 48 states were then targeted. The Veritas Society said that in 2020 alone, it conducted a campaign that served 14.3 million ads to women who had visited abortion clinics, with the ads pushed out to their social media pages on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.
A second investigation by The Wall Street Journal into Near Intelligence revealed in October 2023 that the company had also sold geolocation data to the U.S. government. Near Intelligence had provided the data to a defense contractor, which sold the data to the Defense Department and U.S. intelligence agencies. Sen. Wyden spoke with Near Intelligence’s Chief Privacy Officer, Jay Angelo, who explained that the company did not have the technical capabilities to prevent customers from targeting individuals who visited sensitive locations. He also confirmed that Near Intelligence had been providing location data to the defense contractor, AELIUS Exploitation Technologies, for three years and that the geolocation data had been collected without user consent. The Near Intelligence website stated that the data collected would not be provided to governments. Angelo joined Near Intelligence in June 2022 and conducted a review of the company’s practices, which revealed the company was facilitating the sale of geolocation data to the U.S. government. When the review was concluded, those statements were removed from the website.
Near Intelligence had a particularly bad financial year and has filed for bankruptcy. A statement provided in its December 11, 2023 bankruptcy hearing confirmed that former executives are under criminal investigation and that the SEC has initiated an investigation of the company related to a data breach in France, which involved transferring the data of E.U citizens to the U.S. government.
The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on the collection and sale of geolocation data that has been obtained without consent and has recently settled a complaint with the data broker X-Mode Social/Outlogic. Sen. Wyden requested FTC Chair, the Honorable Lina Khan, prevent Near Intelligence from selling off the data it has collected to another company or data broker during the company’s bankruptcy proceedings and to ensure that the geolocation and device data it holds is permanently deleted. Sen. Wyden explained that in this instance, The Veritas Society conducted a misinformation campaign, but the same geolocation data could be used by right-wing prosecutors in states with bans on abortions to prosecute women who visit abortion clinics in states where abortions are legal.
Sen. Wyden also requested the SEC Chair, the Honorable Gary Gensler, expand the SEC’s investigation of Near Intelligence and investigate whether the misleading statements Near Intelligence provided to Congress about whether geolocation data was obtained with users’ consent violated securities laws. “Federal watchdogs should hold [Near Intelligence] accountable for abusing Americans’ private information,” said Sen. Wyden. “And Congress needs to step up as soon as possible to ensure extremist politicians can’t buy this kind of sensitive data without a warrant.”
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