Massachusetts Takes On the Data Brokers

(Photo Credit: Rob Hapson/Unsplash)

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States were just getting warmed up with their TikTok bans.

The Massachusetts Legislature is considering prohibiting the sale of cell phone location data. If passed, it would be a first for the country, and data brokers in a $300 billion-plus industry won’t be happy.

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No matter the app — ride-sharing, dating, social media, and of course, maps — users are constantly tracked. A 2018 investigation from The New York Times found some apps log a user’s location as many as 14,000 times a day. Many apps then sell this information to data brokers, who in turn sell it to various companies, advertisers, and even government agencies.

Location information isn’t anything personal like names and phone numbers, but it’s easy for companies with apps to determine exactly where users live. Massachusetts lawmakers could soon stop the pipeline:

  • The data sales industry is huge. According to market researcher Knowledge Sourcing Intelligence, the global data broker market was valued at $320 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to $545 billion by 2028. That includes all kinds of data, not just location. A ban on selling location data in one state might be a drop in the bucket, but what if other states join in?
  • The State Privacy & Security Coalition, a lobbyist group that represents some big names in tech, including Google, Amazon, and Meta, recently had a representative testify to a joint committee of the state legislature. Andrew Kingman said, “The definition of sale is extremely broad,” and that the industry would support giving consumers “the ability to opt-out of sale.”

No other state has gone so far as to ban location data sales, but some have enacted restrictions and required apps to provide consent forms to users before any data is collected.

More than Target Ads: Annoying advertisements are only part of the motivation behind the new law. The Massachusetts Legislature website described it as also “protecting reproductive health access, LGBTQ lives, religious liberty, and freedom of movement.” But that cuts both ways. Abortion-rights advocates argue the data can be used to track people crossing state lines for a procedure, and The Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Homeland Security Authorities bought location data to follow people living near the US-Mexico border.