Massachusetts weighs outright ban on selling user location data

It would be the first such law in the nation.

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The Massachusetts state legislature is considering a bill that would ban the sale of users’ phone location data. If passed, the Location Shield Act would be the first such law in the nation as Congress stalls on comprehensive user privacy solutions on a national scale. The state’s proposed legislation would also require a warrant for law enforcement to access user location data from data brokers.

Today, The Wall Street Journal published a report with numerous details on the proposed legislation, following earlier discussions at the state house (as reported by The Athol Daily News). Of course, the bill wouldn’t prevent Massachusetts residents from using their phone’s location services for things that directly benefit them — like Google Maps navigation, DoorDash deliveries or hailing an Uber. However, it would bar tech companies and data vendors from selling that data to third parties — a practice without any clear consumer benefit.

The Location Shield Act is backed by the ACLU and various progressive and pro-choice groups, who see a greater urgency to block the dissemination of user location in a post-Dobbs world. As red states increasingly criminalize abortion, concerns have grown over the transfer of user data to catch women traveling out of state to undergo the procedure or access medication. In addition, the bill’s backers raise concerns about national security and digital-stalking implications.

Opposing the legislation is the State Privacy & Security Coalition, a trade association representing the tech industry. “The definition of sale is extremely broad,” said Andrew Kingman, an association lawyer. He says the group supports heightened protections but would prefer giving consumers “the ability to opt-out of sale,” as other state laws have done, rather than imposing an outright ban. Of course, making it optional rather than a complete ban would likely be much better for data brokers’ bottom lines.

Requiring law enforcement to provide a warrant to access user location data could also help curtail the rising trend of law enforcement buying that information commercially. A 2022 ACLU investigation found that the Department of Homeland Security bought over 336,000 data points to essentially bypass the Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant. Although the US Supreme Court has said a warrant is usually needed for agencies to access location data from carriers, purchasing the data from private companies has served as a loophole.

The Massachusetts legislative session runs through next year, and the bill’s backers show optimism that it will pass. “I have every reason to be optimistic that something will be happening in this session,” MA Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem (D), the bill’s sponsor, told the WSJ.

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