What is Geo-Fencing, and Why is it Helping Make the World Terrible?

The perfect surveillance device is the one you carry yourself | Photo: Johan Larsson, CC BY 2.0


For the most part, I am very pro-technology. I don’t think I would have half of the friends that I do now if the internet existed—partly because I would never have met some of them, partly because I am legitimately terrible at keeping in touch with people if they don’t have Facebook. I don’t do phone calls very well. This website obviously couldn’t exist without technology, which would mean that I’d be screaming into an actual void each week instead of getting to be angry on the internet where (some) people actually read what I do. But technology also frightens me sometimes. It takes the worst parts of human nature and amplifies them, so that sexists suddenly can harass their victims in new and interesting ways, or domestic abusers can track down their victims. Or, you know, people can send targeted advertising to women in abortion clinics, and potentially even start tracking them in real time. Welcome to the future, ladies and gentlemen. We’re getting a little bit 1984 in here.

In today’s edition of “stuff I really never wanted to admit was real,” we have the story of Jon Flynn, a Boston entrepreneur (I expected better of you, Boston) who had a crazy idea: what if instead of just sending people annoying-but-mostly-harmless advertisements based on their location and browsing history, you could send women anti-choice propaganda while they are sitting in the waiting room of an abortion clinic? And what if you could make money by doing so? What if you were actually the worst person?
Flynn uses a technique called “geo-fencing” which lets you send messages to mobile devices within a defined geographical area… like say the walls of an abortion clinic. And, surprise surprise, the types of people who think it’s a good idea to hold signs showing aborted fetuses and shout at women that they’re going to go to hell think it is an awesome plan, because now they can be even more effective at harassing women:

Anti-choice groups were tantalized by the ability to hone 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 [a Christian adoption organization] 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.”

Yes, now it is easier to find women who “need someone to talk to,” because obviously they put basically no thought into their life choices before walking into the clinic. The ads that Flynn provides for these intrusive acts of “help” are pretty typical for Crisis Pregnancy Center (also known as CPCs, also known as “homes of lies and deceit”) advertising. A pensive/sad woman  looks off into the distance next to wording that says “Pregnant? It’s your choice. You have time… be informed. RealOptions Pregnancy Medical Clinic.” Because the assumption is that the abortion clinic is the one who is going to be lying to you and presenting you with all of those “fake” options.

Like pretty much any CPC that claims that it is going to provide information about women’s choices, RealOptions is full of it, and pretty clearly does not intend to provide women with information on any option besides “keep the baby because that’s what Jesus would want”: “in federal tax filings, the organization explains its mission as: ‘empowering and equipping women and men to choose life for their unborn children through the love of Jesus Christ in accordance with his word regarding the sanctity of human life.’”  So don’t listen to that medical professional, ladies and gentlemen. Come hear about the “real options” you can have by choosing between the distinct options of keeping the baby or…. Keeping the baby for a while, and then giving it to a nice Christian home. In addition to redirecting women to CPCs, Flynn’s plan also sends women information on adoption services, and he claims that over 10,000 people have clicked on ads for Bethany Christian Services that he sent to women in abortion clinics.

Sadly enough, this super-invasive advertising is not the most terrifying aspect of Flynn’s efforts. No, the terrifying part is what information the anti-choice groups can learn about women in return:

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.”

I basically would never want anyone who is not a close friend or family member to know my demographic information AND the fact that I’m a pet-owning Honda driver AND that I’m seeking an abortion. While “affirmative consent” is needed for advertisers to use information gained from mobile devices, that consent can be pretty easily obtained: in the fine print of apps like Yelp, or from individuals logging onto various services. And while there is currently no evidence that Flynn’s customers are using the capabilities of mobile devices to track women physically, there’s a short step from writing down the license plate numbers of women going to abortion clinics and using smartphone data to track said women. While Flynn’s clients technically only have access to what is called an “advertiser ID,” it’s very simple for that ID to get linked to an actual person. I’m re-posting this part in full, because it’s freaking terrifying:

Both RealOptions and Bethany Christian Services require a person’s name and contact information in order to receive information online. Once a woman enters her name, email, home address, phone number, or ZIP code, that information is tied to her advertising ID, and Flynn could potentially marry that ID to all data associated with it and store it in what he calls his databank.

There are, however, plenty of less aboveboard methods to learn the name attached to an anonymous ID.

Any site or app that uses a profile with your name and any other information—Facebook, dating services, banking apps—can link your device, and your advertising ID, to the real you.

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.

For instance, if an anti-choice group wanted to learn the identity of women seeking abortions, instead of sending them ads for CPCs, they could send ads that seemed unrelated to abortion—for a competition to win $500, or for help with student loans—that tricked women into entering their names, email addresses, and any other information required by the form. Any woman who filled out the form would have unwittingly handed her name to anti-choice activists.

Since some marketing software also allows marketers to track individuals whose information they’ve gathered, this also means that some women could be tracked to their homes, to their place of work… you get the idea. The employees in the clinic could likewise be tracked in this fashion, but I’m sure that Flynn and his cohorts are going to be completely reasonable people and not do something like that. I mean it’s not like anti-abortionists are known for putting together “kill lists” that provide personal information about abortion providers, associate abortion providers with Nazis and celebrate abortion providers’ demise if they are killed… oh wait, no, that’s exactly what they’re known for. 

Currently the best advice for women to avoid this geo-fencing harassment is to leave their phone in their vehicle or log out of absolutely all apps before they walk into the clinic, neither of which is probably terribly likely to happen. And like most things in our culture, it puts the emphasis on the victims, rather than the harassers, to adjust their behavior. So in lieu of treating an abortion clinic like a prison where you leave your cell phone in a little tray at the door, I suggest a counter-offensive—using the same technology to push messages about actual choices and options, messages that reassure women that they are secure in whatever choice they make, and telling them  please, for the love of all that is holy, do not sign up for that sweepstakes while you’re sitting inside the clinic. It’s a trap.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to explain all the things wrong with firing teachers for talking about rather common body parts, she studies gender in  popular culture.


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