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FTC Accuses Data Broker of Selling Info That Could Track People to Sensitive Locations

Data broker and marketing company Kochava is accused of selling precise geolocation data that could reveal visits to reproductive health clinics, places of worship and other sensitive locations.

Smartphone screen showing the location of Queen Elizabeth Forest Park
FTC is suing Kochava for selling sensitive geolocation information on millions of mobile users. 
James Martin/CNET

The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on data brokers selling information that could be used to track individuals. In a complaint filed on Monday, the FTC accuses Idaho-based company Kochava of selling information that contains sensitive geolocation data from millions of mobile devices that could be used to track people's movements to places like reproductive health clinics, places of worship, domestic violence shelters, mental health facilities, addiction recovery centers and more. 

Kochava and other data brokers buy vast amounts of data and location information collected from mobile devices. They then analyze the data and repackage it for sales and marketing clients. People are typically unaware that their data is being bought and sold in this way and have no control over the practice. 

The suit, filed in US District Court in Idaho, alleges that Kochava crossed a line by offering its customers data feeds where they can identify and track specific mobile users. For example, the geolocation data can be used to follow a person to their house and track when and how long they stay there, according to the FTC. The suit alleges that this information can be combined with property records and used to identify the name of the user. 

The suit aims to force Kochava to stop selling the data and to delete any sensitive geolocation it has collected. 

The FTC said it reviewed a publicly available data sample from Kochava and found that it contained "precise, timestamped location data collected from more than 61 million unique mobile devices in the previous week." This type of data can then be used to track people and expose sensitive information about their personal lives, which the FTC said could potentially lead to discrimination, stigma, emotional distress and, in the case of those trying to remove themselves from abusers, physical harm.

"Where consumers seek out health care, receive counseling, or celebrate their faith is private information that shouldn't be sold to the highest bidder," said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "The FTC is taking Kochava to court to protect people's privacy and halt the sale of their sensitive geolocation information."

Kochava didn't immediately respond to CNET's request for a comment.