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How Anti-Choice Groups Push Message "Directly Into Women's Phones"

New investigation by Rewire finds that 'pregnancy crisis centers' use geofencing to target women seeking abortions

It's a tactic that presents serious threats to women's safety and privacy, as well as that of abortion providers and their staff, experts say. (Photo: Toshihiro Gamo/flickr/cc)

Anti-choice groups are using smartphone location tracking technology known as geofencing to target women seeking abortions with advertisements intended to mislead and intimidate, a new investigation by Rewire has revealed.

It's a tactic that presents serious threats to women's safety and privacy, as well as that of abortion providers and their staff—particularly as the technology allows anti-choice activists to target those they think will be most susceptible to their message.

"Far too many women already know the fear and intimidation of walking past protesters who are shouting and holding graphic posters outside an abortion clinic," said Rewire's vice president of investigations and research Sharona Coutts, who authored the piece.

"This technology could provide those same protesters the opportunity to push their messages directly into women's phones. It could even represent a physical threat, as once anti-choice organizations have a woman's unique phone information, they can sell it to others, or use it to learn her name and address," Coutts said.

The pioneer of the technology is marketing executive John Flynn, CEO of Copley Advertising, who developed the idea of using geofencing to target abortion seekers with anti-choice propaganda and pitched the plan to the pregnancy crisis center network RealOptions and the country's largest evangelical adoption group, Bethany Christian Services.

Both organizations now use the technology, which allows them to send propaganda to women's phones while they are in clinic waiting rooms.

Due to inadequate privacy laws in the U.S., these methods are legal. Rewire reports:

In terms of federal laws, many either don’t apply to Flynn’s conduct, or would allow it, according to Chris Hoofnagle, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law, and School of Information.

“Privacy law in the U.S. is technology- and context-dependent,” Hoofnagle said. “As an example, the medical information you relay to your physician is very highly protected, but if you go to a medical website and search for ‘HIV’ or ‘abortion,’ that information is not protected at all.”

In other words, it’s almost certain that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, would not apply.

Meanwhile, agencies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have no jurisdiction over nonprofits, while laws concerning user consent for apps that want to access their data and location are not enough to protect consumers. The only rule is that companies don't lie about what information they are collecting—even if the truth is buried in the fine print, Rewire writes.

Cooper Quintin, a technologist at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Rewire that "the way we need to fight back against this is by blocking these things that are tracking who we are and where we are and what we're looking at."

"Tracking people and building up these databases of what they read online, where they go in the real world, linking their online behaviors to their offline purchases and real world behavior—these things can have real-world effects," Quintin said, "and this is a horrific example of how this can affect people in a way that's much more important than seeing some annoying or creepy ads that follow you around."

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