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FTC says Idaho company's digital tracking data service often puts unaware users at risk

A photo of the Kochava building in Sandpoint, with red accents on a city street corner.
YouTube
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Screenshot
Kochava headquarters as pictured in a company youtube video

The Federal Trade Commission is suing Sandpoint, Idaho-based Kochava, alleging its digital tracking data service can identify people visiting sensitive places, like religious spaces or medical offices offering reproductive healthcare.

Established in 2011, Kochava pulls precise geolocation data from millions of Americans' cell phones each week to package up and sell online. The data comes from phone apps, which have Kochava’s code embedded by the app developers.

In a recruiting video posted to YouTube in July, the company’s founder and CEO, Charles Manning, said of the company’s mission, “We’re here to [expletive] win.”

In a lawsuit filed on August 29, the government alleges the company doesn’t do enough to prevent customers buying its tracking data from piecing together information that can identify users. That puts people, who may not even know they are being digitally tracked, at risk for discrimination, stigma or violence.

The filing asks the court to block Kochava’s services and force them to delete any existing data.

In a preemptive filing earlier this month, the company denied the allegations and said the FTC doesn’t understand its business practices. Kochava says it debuted a privacy block feature on August 10, which removes health services locations from its tracking data. The company claims cell phone users can easily opt out of tracking by denying apps access to location data.

“Kochava sources 100% of the geo data in our data marketplace from third-party data brokers all of whom represent that the data comes from consenting consumers,” General Manager Brian Cox wrote in an emailed response to a request for comment.

Cox said the company has been trying to educate the FTC about its business practices over the past several weeks and is disappointed that, “the only outcome the FTC desired was a settlement that had no clear terms or resolutions and redefined the problem into a moving target.”

He said it’s not clear how Kochava could change its operation to make the FTC happy and called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

The company has been sued over its business practices before. Federal court records show earlier this year the company settled a 2017 lawsuit brought by families who claimed the company’s software, embedded in apps made for children, unfairly tracked those children for financial gain without their parents’ consent.

That settlement was presided over by Idaho District Judge Lynn Winmill. The new case brought by the FTC will be heard by Idaho District Judge David Nye. Kochava has until October 28 to make an additional response to the lawsuit.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.