An investigative report by Rewire News has found that abortion protesters have finally grabbed the brass ring: They've figured out how to follow people into clinics -- and the tool they're using is right in patients' pockets.
The tactic is called mobile geofencing, and it relies on the fact that smartphones are a ubiquitous possession among the target demographic of young women in their late teens and early 20s.
Once people battle their way through the ranks of screaming protesters outside a clinic and open up their phones for distraction inside, intrusive anti-abortion ads pop up on their devices, spreading misinformation and intimidating patients.
If you're wondering how this is legal, welcome to the brave new world of mobile advertising, where slippery laws about privacy create a sort of Wild West environment. And the practice of geofencing is already widespread.
Have you ever landed at an airport or disembarked at a train station only to see Lyft and Uber ads pop up on your phone? That's geofencing.
Advertising agencies pick a geographic location -- like a transit hub -- and push tailored ads to visitors with the goal of nabbing customers. A tired passenger might download a ridesharing app, for example, or a shopper might decide to pop into a store that's advertising a big sale.
Anyone with "location services" turned on who happens to walk into a given zone can see targeted advertising. Many people don't think about their security on apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, leaving location services on by default.
But anti-abortion advertisers are taking it a step further. They're taking advantage of the unique advertising identification associated with every smartphone to drill down to a very specific demographic: 18 to 24-year-old women who have recently visited or searched for clinics, hospitals and reproductive health providers -- known in their parlance as "abortion-minded women."
Getting chills? You should be.
If you have a smartphone, it's associated with a unique advertising identifier that tracks you wherever you go. If you search for directions to an abortion clinic or look up clinics in your area, you can be flagged as an "abortion-minded woman," and when you visit a clinic, your phone will serve up ads for crisis pregnancy centers.
John Flynn, the CEO of Copley Advertising, is responsible for this brilliant exploitation of targeted advertising, and he claims that he's successfully targeted some 800,000 women, with 2,000 continuing on to a crisis pregnancy center's website, according to Rewire.
It's awful to be hounded all the way into a clinic by aggressive protestors -- especially since plenty of patients aren't even visiting clinics for abortion services. But Rewire is worried about something else: people with a consistent pattern of visiting clinics, day after day, week after week -- in other words, employees.
Doctors, nurses, receptionists, security guards, cleaners and other support personnel carry their phones into work with them every day, and advertising tracking can be used to identify them.
Associating a specific advertising ID with a clinic might not seem like such a big deal, but manipulative advertising tactics can push people to divulge their names and contact information, revealing their identities to anti-choice organizers. That's extremely dangerous -- and, apparently, completely legal.
This research highlights how critical it is to implement better regulations that address concerns about advertising and privacy. Ads are becoming increasingly intrusive, and as geofencing illustrates, they're actively stalking their target demographics.
If you're concerned about being geofenced, you have some options for limiting tracking on your phone. Apple provides a detailed guide to opting out of "interest based advertising," and it's an easy fix on Android -- you can also opt out of interest-based ads on Google products in general.
Double-check your location services settings and consider turning them off or going through the list of applications with access permissions and removing them unless absolutely necessary -- for example, you can set Google Maps to use location services only when the application is open and you need directions.
You may also want to reconsider geotagging your posts on social media, as this can pose safety risks to you and others. For a chilling illustration of the dangers of location services, check out I Know Where Your Cat Lives.