Anti-Choice Activists Using Location Services to Send Targeted Ads to Women in Abortion Clinics

A new effort by anti-choice activists to target women seeking abortions just reached a brand-new level of creepy, according to an investigation by the reproductive health news site Rewire.

John Flynn, CEO of Boston-based Copley Advertising, discovered a way to use geotagging—the same technology that allows Uber cars to pick you up—to send targeted ads to women waiting inside Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics.

Flynn began peddling his idea to anti-choice organizations last year, successfully selling two major groups on the technology: RealOptions, a network of crisis pregnancy centers that attempt to persuade pregnant women to give up their babies for adoption, and Bethany Christian Services, an adoption agency that strives “to be the hands and feet of Jesus for children and families around the world." Flynn’s technology provides Bethany Christian Services with targeted ads in Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri; and New York City.

“We are very excited to bring our mobile marketing capabilities to the pro-life community,” Flynn told Live Action News, the website responsible for the fraudulent Planned Parenthood videos that made the organization looks as though it was harvesting and selling baby parts. 

“With geo-fencing, we can reach women who we know are looking for or in need of someone to talk to,” Flynn added. Geo-fencing is a software feature that uses GPS or radio frequency identification (RFID) to define geographical boundaries.

Rewire uncovered slides of Flynn’s product pitch to anti-choice organizations:

“We can reach every Planned Parenthood in the U.S.,” he wrote in a PowerPoint display sent to potential clients in February. The Powerpoint included a slide titled “Targets for Pro-Life,” in which Flynn said he could also reach abortion clinics, hospitals, doctors’ offices, colleges, and high schools in the United States and Canada, and then “[d]rill down to age and sex.”

“We can gather a tremendous amount of information from the [smartphone] ID,” he wrote. “Some of the break outs include: Gender, age, race, pet owners, Honda owners, online purchases and much more.”

“It is incredibly unethical and creepy,” digital marketing expert Brian Solis told Rewire. “You can grab an uncomfortable amount of information from someone’s device and the apps they use."

“It’s unfortunate, but any woman who plans to visit an affected Planned Parenthood, or anyone who works for Planned Parenthood, should be afraid," Solis added.

The worst-case scenario is the potential for sensitive personal information to fall into the hands of anti-choice zealots, including those who aim to do harm to health-care providers and women seeking abortions. As Rewire notes:

Legitimate services would not hand over personally identifying information willingly, but there are many instances of such information being made widely available. The cyber attack on Ashley Madison, the dating site for married people seeking extramarital partners, resulted in the release by hackers of the personal information of 32 million of the site’s users, revealing the potential for profile-based sites to be targeted.

Even without sophisticated hacks on established sites, bad actors can use techniques known as “social engineering” to learn the personal identities associated with advertising IDs.

A social worker at a California adoption agency told Rewire she felt “disgust” when she saw the advertisements. “I felt protective of these women who are going to seek sensitive medical services at a time when they’re vulnerable.”

“They’re being spied on by this capitalist vulture who is literally trying to sell their fetuses,” she added. “To do this to women without consent is predatory and it’s an invasion of her privacy, and unethical.”

For now, there are no laws or regulations guiding Flynn’s technology, and marketers have complete control over what they do with a person’s information after consumers agree to the terms and services. “If one consents to that tracking, and consents for it to be used for advertising purposes, that’s pretty much the end of the story,” UC Berkeley professor Chris Hoofnagle told Rewire.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.