Lawmakers call for FTC crackdown on deceptive VPN practices amid abortion bans

network switches

Virtual Private Networks, or VPNs, are not always as private as they claim — and, amid abortion bans, lawmakers are worried they could put at risk people who trust them when accessing reproductive healthcare information. 

US. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan Thursday urging the agency to crack down on abusive and deceptive data practices of companies that offer VPNs. 

“As the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has amplified concerns about digital reproductive privacy, people seeking abortion are increasingly told that installing a VPN is an important step for protecting themselves when seeking information on abortion in states that have outlawed and criminalized abortion,” the lawmakers wrote. 

VPNs help obscure users’ web traffic by using encryption to create a sort of protected tunnel — adding another layer of security and protecting that traffic from those who otherwise might see it, like your Internet Service Provider (ISP). 

However, they are not a privacy panacea. 

By using a commercial VPN, you are essentially trusting that service with all the same information that your ISP normally sees. And not all VPNs are created equal — it can be hard to figure out how much data a particular service collects and if that information may be shared with third parties, including law enforcement. 

In 2020, for example, BuzzFeed reported that analytics firm Sensor Tower secretly owned several VPN apps that collected user data. 

A Consumer Reports review of popular VPNs last year found that 75% of them misrepresented the protections they can offer in marketing materials. Most had not been recently audited by third parties. 

“With abortion illegal or soon to be illegal in 13 states and severely restricted in many more, these abusive and exploitative data practices are simply unacceptable,” the lawmakers wrote. 

The FTC said earlier this week that it will use “the full scope of its legal authorities” to protect people’s private information in light of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade and criminalization of abortions in many states. The agency’s announcement follows an executive order from President Joe Biden that asked for the FTC’s assistance on that front. 

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