The XX Factor

Anti-Abortion Groups Are Now Sending Targeted Smartphone Ads to Women in Abortion Clinics

Activists could use this technology to stalk doctors and patients through their smartphone IDs.

Groups of right-wing activists are using location-based advertising technology to send misleading anti-abortion ads to the phones of people in abortion clinics, Rewire reported on Wednesday. Working on behalf of crisis pregnancy centers and a dubious Christian adoption agency, a Boston advertising firm is identifying and targeting smartphones sitting in medical facilities that provide abortions, hoping to persuade abortion-seeking women to reconsider.

The man behind this new use of mobile geofencing technology is John Flynn of Copley Advertising, a new darling of the anti-abortion movement. “The life-affirming message is in our belief system,” he told Pregnancy Help News last year. Flynn establishes a “geofence” around a given area—say, a Planned Parenthood location—and registers a unique smartphone ID for every user who crosses the boundary. When a user opens an app that she’s granted permission to use her location, she’ll get one of Flynn’s anti-abortion ads. “We can tag all the smartphones entering and leaving the nearly 700 Planned Parenthood clinics in the U.S.,” Flynn said.

Flynn’s main clients are a California CPC network called RealOptions and behemoth adoption agency Bethany Christian Services, which has faced allegations of pressuring women to carry their fetuses to term, verbally abusing pregnant women, and withholding facts about a birth mother’s rights before and after adoption. According to Rewire, the Bethany Christian Services campaign has reached five cities: Pittsburgh; St. Louis; New York City; Columbus, Ohio; and Richmond, Virginia. “Marketing for pregnancy help centers has always been a needle in a haystack approach—cast a wide net and hope for the best,” a Bethany Christian Services employee told Live Action News in September. “With geo-fencing, we can reach women who we know are looking for or in need of someone to talk to.”

The series of RealOptions ads Flynn targeted at 18-to-24-year-old women in specific locations reached more than 800,000 and successfully persuaded more than 2,000 to visit the RealOptions website, Flynn claims. Like most CPC sites, RealOptions seeks to delay a woman’s decision past the point of a legal or easily obtainable abortion with phrases such as “you have time.” It also tries to persuade women to wait and see if they miscarry and parrots flat-out lies about abortions, claiming that a medical abortion can be reversed and that the procedure causes STIs.

This alarming new strategy boils down to a harassment tactic, bringing the religious shaming and fearmongering hogwash of sidewalk protests inside the clinic’s front door. That Flynn is raking in several thousands of dollars for each campaign—making a profit from each woman who clicks over to read the misinformation and field coercive messaging that could impact the course of her life—makes the whole thing that much ickier. “[Women are] being spied on by this capitalist vulture who is literally trying to sell their fetuses,” a social worker from an adoption agency told Rewire. “To do this to women without consent is predatory and it’s an invasion of her privacy, and unethical.”

By the current Federal Trade Commission rules and regulations about privacy in medicine and cellular data, Flynn’s scheme is legal. Part of the reason, no doubt, is the relative youth of the technology he’s using to target women in abortion clinics. But there’s also no public outcry over this kind of privacy invasion because few people know how easily innocuous ad-targeting could shift to individual person-targeting. Rewire describes a multitude of ways in which an advertising company could find out the exact identity and whereabouts of any person they targeted in an abortion clinic through a user-specific smartphone ID tag. Ambitious anti-abortion activists, who already publish public databases of abortion providers’ photos, personal histories, phone numbers, and addresses, could use mobile geo-fencing to identify and stalk doctors and patients by their smartphone IDs. Flynn’s campaigns haven’t crossed that line yet, but by taking anti-abortion harassment schemes directly to individual women’s phones, he’s helped point the movement in that direction.