SafeGraph Slammed for Location Tracking


By: Mary Jander

SafeGraph, a location data-as-a-service (DaaS) startup partnered with AWS, Databricks, and Snowflake, this week found itself at the center of a whirlwind of criticism over the availability of location data via its service. As a result, it’s suspended the ability to track data on people traveling to and from Planned Parenthood clinics in the U.S. The move prompts multiple questions about the kind of data offered by cloud services and the ways that data is used.

The kerfuffle began when the Motherboard section of online publication Vice purchased data on the number of people visiting U.S. Planned Parenthood clinics, where they came from, and where they headed after their visits. Here’s how the publication described its experiment:

“[T]he data Motherboard purchased includes more than 600 Planned Parenthood locations in the United States. The data included a week's worth of location data for those locations in mid-April. SafeGraph calls the location data product ‘Patterns.’ In total, the data cost just over $160. Not all Planned Parenthood locations offer abortion services. But Motherboard verified that some facilities included in the purchased dataset do.”

As the Supreme Court teeters on the brink of overturning the Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion a legal right in America back in 1973, the availability of this kind of information could conceivably be used to arm vigilantes intent on locating and turning in abortion seekers in states where the procedure is deemed illegal. In Texas, for instance, citizens have been encouraged to report this information to authorities.

Outcry over the Motherboard report prompted SafeGraph to pull back the capabilities of its location tracking services for family planning clinics. In a blog post yesterday, the firm stated:

“We only sell data about physical places (not individuals). Our data is available to anyone to buy. Our schema is public. There is nothing hidden. Even VICE (an online news organization) bought our data and we would never prevent them from getting the data…. In light of potential federal changes in family planning access, we're removing Patterns data for locations classified as NAICS code 621410 (‘Family Planning Centers’) from our self-serve ‘shop’ and API to curtail any potential misuse of its data.”

The Bigger Picture of Location Data Services

SafeGraph, based in San Francisco, was founded 2016 by Auren Hoffman, who also founded LiveRamp (NYSE: RAMP), a marketing software-as-a-service (SaaS) firm. The startup has garnered $61 million in funding, according to Crunchbase, and has become a staple of developers looking to seed research and machine-learning applications with data on user traffic. It’s been used by marketing firms, logistics companies, research labs, and retail location planners. Companies as diverse as Domino’s Pizza and ESRI have queued up, along with government agencies (SafeGraph data has been used to track COVID-19 cases for the CDC and the Federal Reserve).

But almost from the outset, the company has been controversial. Concern over SafeGraph’s sale of COVID-19 data gleaned from users’ Android phones prompted Google last year to ban SafeGraph data collection from any apps sold in the Google Play Store.

And it’s not only SafeGraph's data that has raised questions, but also its investors and advisors. These include Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, a Saudi official, and Peter Thiel, co-founder of Palantir, which was alleged to be active in spyware apps.

SafeGraph isn’t alone among data providers now in the dock. Competitors such as X-Mode, AirSage, Factual Data, and Cuebiq are also engaged in tracking user location activity, albeit anonymously. These and other firms like SafeGraph are facing growing scrutiny as their legitimate and even laudatory use cases are overshadowed by more sinister deployments.