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Facebook's advertising tools are tracking people seeking abortion services, report says

The social network is supposed to filter out sensitive health data.

Dado Ruvic / reuters

Facebook is collecting data about people who visit the websites of pregnancy crisis centers, according to a report from Reveal. The findings raise questions about how that data could be misused, and Meta’s ability to enforce its advertising rules.

In an investigation conducted with The Markup, Reveal found that hundreds of crisis pregnancy centers were using the Meta Pixel on their websites. The Meta Pixel allows companies to keep tabs on who visits their websites so they can create targeted ads on Facebook. As the report notes, so-called crisis pregnancy centers typically aren't licensed medical establishments and are not bound by HIPAA and other privacy regulations. Instead, they are "mostly run by religiously aligned organizations whose mission is to persuade people to choose an option other than abortion."

Under Meta’s rules, the Meta Pixel is supposed to filter out “sensitive” health data, like much of what Reveal found was being collected. “In many cases, the information was extremely sensitive – for example, whether a person was considering abortion or looking to get a pregnancy test or emergency contraceptives,” Reveal reports. In some cases, the social network also received data about specific appointments that were requested. The report also found that third-party anti-abortion marketing companies were able to gain access to data collected by the Meta Pixel, even though their websites had not been visited.

In a statement provided to Reveal, Meta said that “It is against our policies for websites and apps to send sensitive information about people through our Business Tools,” referring to the Meta Pixel. “Our system is designed to filter out potentially sensitive data it detects, and we work to educate advertisers on how to properly set up our Business Tools.”

The issue of online platforms collecting data from people seeking abortion services has taken on a new urgency in recent weeks following a leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Privacy advocates have warned that the information could be used to prosecute people seeking abortions in areas where it's been outlawed. Lawmakers have also raised concerns about the issue, calling on Apple, Google and other platforms to bar apps that collect data targeting people seeking abortion services.