Massachusetts

Bill protecting location data related to reproductive and gender-affirming care clears Mass. House 159-0

One day after top Massachusetts Democrats unveiled a proposal to bar cellphone carriers, data providers and other companies from collecting or selling location information involving reproductive and gender-affirming health care, House members from both parties voted for it unanimously

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Massachusetts representatives took their latest step Wednesday to protect access to abortions, other reproductive health services and gender-affirming care with unanimous approval of a location data shield bill.

One day after top Democrats unveiled the proposal, the House voted 159-0 on legislation that would bar cellphone carriers, data providers and other companies from collecting or selling location information involving reproductive and gender-affirming health care.

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Supporters pitched the bill (H 4844) as a response to growing anti-abortion and transphobic movements in other states, empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 Dobbs decision that ended the federal right to an abortion.

By limiting data collection and sale, they said, Massachusetts can protect patients — both its own residents and those who travel here — against harassment or legal consequences for seeking care.

"Today, more than one in three women of reproductive age lives in a state that has enacted an abortion ban at six weeks of pregnancy or less," said Rep. Kate Lipper-Garabedian, a Melrose Democrat who helped lead the push for broader data-privacy legislation. "For the women and girls living in these states who do not wish to be conscripted into pregnancy, interstate travel is often a necessity, and as gut-wrenching lawsuits and firsthand accounts reveal, interstate travel has also become a necessity for countless women in those states who desperately wish to be mothers but who have been denied medically necessary care at home in the face of fatal fetal anomalies and medical emergencies."

The bill would ban data carriers, companies and other actors from collecting and selling location information linked to reproductive health care, including abortion and contraception services, and treatment of gender dysphoria.

To shield patients, the measure would limit use of that data when it can be linked to a specific individual seeking or researching reproductive or gender-affirming health care and reveals their "street-level location information within a range of 1,850 feet or less."

Companies would be allowed to collect or process location data if they meet three conditions: provide a patient with a copy of the location data privacy policy, obtain the patient's consent, and fulfill a "permissible purpose" such as using the information to conduct a financial transaction for the patient or to respond to an emergency.

The attorney general would be tasked with crafting regulations to administer the new policy, which would take effect one year after the bill's signature into law.

"This technology is changing so fast that legislation can never keep up with it, but the attorney general would have the ability to make changes over time," Pittsfield Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said.

Several lawmakers described the bill as a follow-up to recent reproductive care access laws, including the 2020 "ROE Act" and a 2022 measure protecting Massachusetts providers from legal action originating in other states.

Lipper-Garabedian referenced an investigation by Democrat U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who earlier this year said location data provider Near Intelligence tracked visits to nearly 600 Planned Parenthood locations in 48 states and provided the information to an anti-abortion campaign.

"Tracked location data generated by cell phones here in Massachusetts was disclosed to a data broker that sold information for anti-abortion purposes," Lipper-Garabedian said. She added, "We must shield location data from the anti-care politicians, prosecutors and vigilantes who wish to track, harass and pursue legal action against those seeking or providing care."

The House's unanimous vote followed vocal praise for the bill from both Democrats and Republicans.

GOP Rep. David Vieira of Falmouth urged his colleagues to support the measure, arguing that "privacy is a fundamental human right that underpins our freedom of association, thought and expression, as well as freedom from discrimination."

It's not clear if Senate Democrats also plan to take up the location shield measure. The House vote tosses another weighty topic onto a large — and growing — pile of incomplete work with only three weeks remaining for formal business this term.

Reproductive health and civil rights activists quickly threw support behind the proposal after it emerged Tuesday, pitching it as a needed response to anti-abortion efforts empowered after the precedent established by Roe v. Wade came to an end.

"In the two years post-Dobbs, hostile actors have targeted the location data of patients and providers in all 50 states, and now, we are increasingly concerned that this data will be weaponized against those seeking and providing care in Massachusetts," Rebecca Hart Holder, president of the Reproductive Equity Now group, said Tuesday. "Today the House is making an important statement that we will not let that stand in our Commonwealth. We are proud that the House understands that abortion patients are not fully protected until their digital footprint is protected, too."

The Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee has been weighing a broader location data privacy bill for more than a year, including a public hearing last summer. That panel still has not made a formal recommendation whether the larger legislation should advance, though its House chair, Rep. Tackey Chan, spoke in support of the new bill Wednesday.

Electronic kiosks popping up across the Boston area are reading data from people's cellphones without their knowledge.

The broader legislation, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, could have an impact on issues like outdoor digital kiosks that have popped up in many communities in the Boston area. The kiosks, made by Cambridge-based Soofa, read data off the smartphones of unsuspecting people as they pass them.

House Democrats crafted the new, narrower version as a "report in part" on an unrelated mid-year spending bill Gov. Maura Healey filed in March.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Aaron Michlewitz said conversations are still ongoing about additional reforms to limit data collection and sale outside the realm of reproductive and gender-affirming care.

"We know there's a bigger question at hand surrounding data privacy in general, and this body will have that discussion at a later date," the North End Democrat said. "But for now, with a Supreme Court that is consistently throwing curveballs our way and an unpredictable November election ahead, we felt it was important to move forward with these additional protections in a more immediate fashion."

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