Anti-choice groups may be following you into an abortion clinic through your phone

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Most of us have no idea what we’re signing off on when we agree to the terms of an app we’ve downloaded. There’s a huge amount of data about us that companies have access to thanks to our ever-present smart phones. An investigation by Rewire reveals a chilling new implication: anti-choice groups are using geo-fencing to advertise to women while they are inside abortion clinics. 

In an interview with Live Action News—the website for Live Action, the group run by anti-choice activist Lila Rose that is responsible for bogus attack videos against Planned Parenthood—Flynn gave some details about his strategy. He sends advertisements for his clients to women’s smartphones while they are sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics, using a technology known as “mobile geo-fencing.” He also planned to ping women at methadone clinics and other abortion facilities. His program for Bethany covered five cities: 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.

Anti-choice groups were tantalized by the ability to home in on the women they think will be most susceptible to their message.

“Marketing for pregnancy help centers has always been a needle in a haystack approach—cast a wide net and hope for the best,” said Bethany Regional Marketing Manager Jennie VanHorn, according to the report. “With geo fencing, we can reach women who we know are looking for or in need of someone to talk to.”

Anti-choice groups will do and say just about anything to keep people from accessing abortion care, and it would be dangerous to underestimate their ingenuity and sophistication. It’s creepy enough when we see ads on Facebook for an item we were just shopping for online. But this technology is outright terrifying in the hands of people with a record of threats, harassment and violence.

In the late 1990s, an anti-choice extremist created a website called the Nuremberg Files—in reference to Nazi Germany—which was a list of the names and addresses of doctors who provided abortions. Operation Rescue maintained a site called “Tiller Watch” that monitored the doctor’s whereabouts until he was murdered in the spring of 2009. Extremists have published “Wanted” signs with photographs of abortion providers. Activists in Texas stalk people entering local clinics, noting their physical appearance and license plates, hoping to determine which women went through with their abortion and whether anyone changed their mind, as well as to identify clinic workers. Many providers around the country report having been followed on their way to and from work.

The Rewire piece points out that there does not appear to be anything illegal about what these groups are doing, particularly since people usually consent to this kind of monitoring without even realizing they are doing so.

“Right now, there’s this big ideological debate about ad-blocking. What’s missing from that debate is the idea of blocking things that are tracking you. 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, 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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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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