Use of smartphone GPS to track people in abortion clinics and send anti-abortion messages

Women who have visited almost any abortion clinic in the United States have seen anti-choice protesters outside, wielding placards and chanting abuse. A Boston advertiser’s technology, when deployed by anti-choice groups, allows those groups to send propaganda directly to a woman’s phone while she is in a clinic waiting room and also has the capability to hand the names and addresses of those providing and seeking abortion care to anti-choice groups.In 2015, an advertising executive in Boston developed the use of cellphone surveillance techniques to track women visiting an abortion clinic and send them advertisements, which he is carrying out on behalf of RealOptions, an anti-abortion network of crisis pregnancy centers in northern California, and also offered to an evangelical adoption agency, Bethany Christian Services.Messaging based on a system of surveillanceThese advertisements use a technology known as “mobile geo-fencing”. Although it is now ubiquitous, mobile digital advertising is a relatively new phenomenon, only as old as the sophisticated smartphones on which it relies. As a result, laws and the regulators who enforce them are lagging behind when it comes to the many possible ways that bad actors can abuse smartphone advertising.One expert interviewed for this article said this was the inevitable application of a technology meant for mass advertising campaigns that, while considered by many people to be intrusive, do not generally amount to a threat as such. This intrusion by an anti-abortion advertiser does present a serious threat to the privacy and safety of women, as well as to abortion providers and their staff, but due to weak laws governing privacy and data collection in the USA, it appears to be legal.By now, many people have experienced the phenomenon that if they look at something online, advertisements for that thing follow them around the internet for some time afterwards. While theoretically anonymous, if you have GPS enabled on your phone and are logged into apps, these marketing personas may be able to track where you live, work and travel.This anti-abortion advertiser claimed in a PowerPoint display sent to potential clients in February 2016 that he could reach every Planned Parenthood clinic in the country, and also abortion clinics, hospitals, doctors’ offices, colleges, and high schools across North America. He claimed he had already attempted to ping cellphones for RealOptions and Bethany nearly three million times, and had been able to steer thousands of women to their websites. The price tag for one of these campaigns, he said, was US$ 8,000.He initially agreed to speak with Rewire for this story, but did not respond to multiple follow-up emails or phone calls. Much of Rewire’s report is based on materials that he sent to people he believed to be potential clients. Numerous messages seeking comment from RealOptions’ management went unanswered; a spokesperson for Bethany Christian Services confirmed they have used these services and “appreciate their ideas” but declined to discuss specific campaigns.Examples of ads that Flynn said he had sent to young women’s phones on RealOptions’ behalf ask: “Pregnant?” or “Abortion?” and then include statements like “It’s your choice. You have time… Be informed” and “Get the facts first”. That language may lead women to believe they can obtain abortion care at RealOptions but in federal tax filings, the organization says its mission is: “empowering and equipping women and men to choose life for their unborn children through the love of Jesus Christ in accordance with his word regarding the sanctity of human life”.SOURCE: Rewire, 25 May 2016Watch Rewire’s video for information on how to avoid location-based tracking.