The Federal Trade Commission has succeeded in keeping alive its first federal court case against a geolocation data broker that’s allegedly unfairly selling large quantities of data in violation of the FTC Act.
On Saturday, US District Judge Lynn Winmill denied Kochava’s motion to dismiss an amended FTC complaint, which he said plausibly argued that “Kochava’s data sales invade consumers’ privacy and expose them to risks of secondary harms by third parties.”
Winmill’s ruling reversed a dismissal of the FTC’s initial complaint, which the court previously said failed to adequately allege that Kochava’s data sales cause or are likely to cause a “substantial” injury to consumers.
The FTC has accused Kochava of selling “a substantial amount of data obtained from millions of mobile devices across the world”—allegedly combining precise geolocation data with a “staggering amount of sensitive and identifying information” without users’ knowledge or informed consent. This data, the FTC alleged, “is not anonymized and is linked or easily linkable to individual consumers” without mining “other sources of data.”
Kochava’s data sales allegedly allow its customers—whom the FTC noted often pay tens of thousands of dollars monthly—to target specific individuals by combining Kochava data sets. Using just Kochava data, marketers can create “highly granular” portraits of ad targets such as “a woman who visits a particular building, the woman’s name, email address, and home address, and whether the woman is African-American, a parent (and if so, how many children), or has an app identifying symptoms of cancer on her phone.” Just one of Kochava’s databases “contains ‘comprehensive profiles of individual consumers,’ with up to ‘300 data points’ for ‘over 300 million unique individuals,'” the FTC reported.
This harms consumers, the FTC alleged, in “two distinct ways”—by invading their privacy and by causing “an increased risk of suffering secondary harms, such as stigma, discrimination, physical violence, and emotional distress.”
In its amended complaint, the FTC overcame deficiencies in its initial complaint by citing specific examples of consumers already known to have been harmed by brokers sharing sensitive data without their consent. That included a Catholic priest who resigned after he was outed by a group using precise mobile geolocation data to track his personal use of Grindr and his movements to “LGBTQ+-associated locations.” The FTC also pointed to invasive practices by journalists using precise mobile geolocation data to identify and track military and law enforcement officers over time, as well as data brokers tracking “abortion-minded women” who visited reproductive health clinics to target them with ads about abortion and alternatives to abortion.
“Kochava’s practices intrude into the most private areas of consumers’ lives and cause or are likely to cause substantial injury to consumers,” the FTC’s amended complaint said.
The FTC is seeking a permanent injunction to stop Kochava from allegedly selling sensitive data without user consent.
Kochava considers the examples of consumer harms in the FTC’s amended complaint as “anecdotes” disconnected from its own activities. The data broker was seemingly so confident that Winmill would agree to dismiss the FTC’s amended complaint that the company sought sanctions against the FTC for what it construed as a “baseless” filing. According to Kochava, many of the FTC’s allegations were “knowingly false.”
Ultimately, the court found no evidence that the FTC’s complaints were baseless. Instead of dismissing the case and ordering the FTC to pay sanctions, Winmill wrote in his order that Kochava’s motion to dismiss “misses the point” of the FTC’s filing, which was to allege that Kochava’s data sales are “likely” to cause alleged harms. Because the FTC had “significantly” expanded factual allegations, the agency “easily” satisfied the plausibility standard to allege substantial harms were likely, Winmill said.
Kochava CEO and founder Charles Manning said in a statement provided to Ars that Kochava “expected” Winmill’s ruling and is “confident” that Kochava “will prevail on the merits.”
“This case is really about the FTC attempting to make an end-run around Congress to create data privacy law,” Manning said. “The FTC’s salacious hypotheticals in its amended complaint are mere scare tactics. Kochava has always operated consistently and proactively in compliance with all rules and laws, including those specific to privacy.”
In a press release announcing the FTC lawsuit in 2022, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, Samuel Levine, said that the FTC was determined to halt Kochava’s allegedly harmful data sales.
“Where consumers seek out health care, receive counseling, or celebrate their faith is private information that shouldn’t be sold to the highest bidder,” Levine said. “The FTC is taking Kochava to court to protect people’s privacy and halt the sale of their sensitive geolocation information.”