Massachusetts Attorney General: Anti-Choice Groups Can’t Spy on ‘Abortion-Minded Women’

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Massachusetts Attorney General: Anti-Choice Groups Can’t Spy on ‘Abortion-Minded Women’

Sharona Coutts

A Boston-based firm dispatched advertisements for anti-choice groups to women’s smartphones while they were sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics, using a technology known as “mobile geo-fencing.”

The Attorney General of Massachusetts announced this morning that she has reached a settlement agreement with the Boston-based firm hired by anti-choice groups to target “abortion-minded women” while they were visiting medical clinics, through tracking the location of the women’s cell phones.

Rewire in May 2016 first reported the activities of the firm, Copley Advertising, and its owner, John Flynn. We found that Flynn had been hired by anti-choice groups in California, including a network of fake clinics, commonly called crisis pregnancy centers, to target women at abortion clinics and other locations, in an effort to send them advertisements for the anti-choice groups even as the women were sitting inside the abortion clinic.

Flynn used a technique called “geo-fencing,” which allows marketers to see the mobile devices within specified geographical boundaries, and to marry the unique identifiers associated with each device to reams of data about the person using it. The combination of location with demographic information, as well as browsing and purchasing history, allows marketers to learn and infer astonishing amounts of information about people, often without their knowledge.

Today’s settlement agreement, filed this morning in the Superior Court of Massachusetts, says that Attorney General Maura Healey did not find evidence that Flynn tracked any women at clinics in that state. The agreement says such conduct would violate Massachusetts’ consumer protection laws because, “it intrudes upon a consumer’s private health or medical affairs or status and/or results in the gathering or dissemination of private health or medical facts about the consumer without his or her knowledge or consent.”

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Flynn has agreed not to geo-fence any health center in Massachusetts “to infer the health status, medical condition, or medical treatment of any person.” The agreement also binds his company.

However, this appears to be the first such agreement made by Flynn, who has the capacity to “tag all the smartphones entering and leaving the nearly 700 Planned Parenthood clinics in the U.S,” according to the court filing.

Rewire will reach out to the offices of the attorneys general in California and New York for comment on whether they intend to take similar steps under their consumer protection laws. Our reporting found that Flynn claimed to have already geo-fenced medical centers in both of those states to target women who might be pregnant or considering abortion care.

This story will be updated should Rewire hear from those states.

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