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Brookline company agrees not to beam anti-abortion ads at the phones of women in Massachusetts abortion clinics

A Brookline company that has figured out how to beam mobile-phone ads at people in very specific geographic locations today agreed not to use the technology to target people sitting in Massachusetts health facilities.

The agreement with the Massachusetts Attorney General's office only covers Massachusetts facilities. John Flynn's Copley Advertising was using its "geofencing" technology at clinics in New York City, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Columbus, OH, the AG's office reports:

The advertisements included text such as “Pregnancy Help,” “You Have Choices,” and “You’re Not Alone” that, if clicked, took the consumer to a webpage with information about abortion alternatives and access to a live web chat with a “pregnancy support specialist.” Copley has represented that it has not yet engaged in geofencing campaigns near reproductive health clinics in Massachusetts, although it has the ability to do so.

In a statement, Attorney General Maura Healey, who said the technology represents a potential privacy violation, at least under Massachusetts consumer-protection laws, said:

While geofencing can have positive benefits for consumers, it is also a technology that has the potential to digitally harass people and interfere with health privacy. Consumers are entitled to privacy in their medical decisions and conditions. This settlement will help ensure that consumers in Massachusetts do not have to worry about being targeted by advertisers when they seek medical care.

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A reasonable resolution to some reasonable concerns.

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All of the underlying problems are still there. If they can discern location with enough precision to target the interior space of a building, they can do all sorts of horrible other things. They just chose an extremely contentious place to fight their first battle. The fact that they can curate ads at all based on geodata means they're collecting extremely detailed information about the location of phones, and even if it's anonymized, you can use metadata to identify a user pretty easily. I for one am still extremely uncomfortable with the prospect of Copley having a detailed record of my comings and goings, even if they aren't going to barrage my phone with advertising every time I set foot in a hospital.

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What's needed are laws that make it illegal for companies which track location info (Google, Verizon, etc) from selling, distributing, or otherwise using this information for marketing purposes.

Given the FCC's management, such federal regulations will never happen but the state can at least try.

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If I'm in a new city and they want to send me duck tour or restaurant ads, I'm cool with that. However, I should be able to opt-in and opt-out of being targeted by my location.

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It should be an explicit opt-in, not, "By using this App you agree to let us do what we want"

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Years ago I was a member of BU's Fitness and Recreation Center. Google Now at the time used to "learn" your travel patterns and suggest travel times based on your usual habits. At the time, my "usual habit" was to go to the gym on Tuesday and Thursday after work.

So Google Now would, towards the end of the work day, give me traffic alerts to the gym, showing the little blue location dot on the map at my destination: the back of the ladies' locker room, where I locked up my purse while swimming. It was that specific.

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Where have I heard both "Brookline" and "health clinic" together before? Oh right, a christian terrorist once went into a Brookline Planned Parenthood and shot two receptionists to death. Glad these religious nut jobs can't beam their creepy spam to women in Massachusetts. They have already put them through enough.

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You need to get out more.

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Things I learned from this article:

Mobile phone ads can not only be "beamed", but "at people" to boot.

A Brookline company "figured out" geofencing. (and grammatically, they figured it out today).

People in health facilities who are standing or lying down are apparently not protected by the agreement, only people who are sitting.

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Consumers can at least try to be proactive about this.

This Pro Publica article from 2014 included suggestions that still make sense today,

https://www.propublica.org/article/privacy-tools-mask-your-location

plus a pointer to this site, run by the Future of Privacy Forum, an industry funded advocacy group

https://smart-places.org/

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This is an outrageous infringement on free speech rights.

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Your right to be an asshole ends at my nose.

Or are you arguing that members of [certain proselytizing sect] not only have the right to ring your doorbell but have the right to march into your living room and not leave until you convert or cry uncle?

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Nose. Doorbell. Living room. None of these things have anything to do with this case.

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Can I guess your gender?

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If your point is that men aren't allowed to have opinions on this subject, why are you talking?

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What I am suggesting is that, as a man, you might not fully realize what it might be like to be a woman in that situation (I wouldn't dare go so far as to say that you just might not care). Obviously, I can't fully understand being in that position, either, but unlike you, I can understand the reasoning of the attorney general in applying our privacy protections to her.

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Put your mind to rest. I do fully realize the situation and reject it all the same.

I can't understand the AG because the privacy protections do not apply in this case. This is a matter of law and the AG has stretched things in such a way that violate the First Amendment. This isn't the first time she's done this. Maura Healey helped craft the "buffer zone" law that was struck down by the Supreme Court in an 8-0 decision.
http://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/06/mccullen_vs_coakley_b...

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I can't understand the AG because the privacy protections do not apply in this case.

Oh really? It's my damn phone, not yours and not some funnymentalist sect's.

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Adam provided you with an analogy.

But I'll be direct. What gives the right to any business to know my whereabouts without my explicitly giving them permission? That is a violation of my privacy. Which counts more? My privacy or a the ability to know and sell to the highest bidder the knowledge of my location?

But this is not about free speech. Copley Advertising is not making any statement. They are simply selling location information to organizations which themselves are engaged in communicating ideas. So no entity's ability to make a statement is infringed. What is addressed here is the selling of personal information by a company that is able to use electronic devices to know where I am standing.

Knowing where I am standing at a given moment is itself creepy. But now that Congress has given the go ahead to ISPs to sell that information we will now, here's another analogy, be digital prostitutes with ISPs as the pimps selling where we are standing or sitting and selling our attention and eyeballs, figuratively speaking.

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There are all sorts of valid questions about the rights (or limits to same) of users and places of business to limit what comes to them.

At the same time, to decide that they're going to screen out one point of view on a topic (for example, beaming "please don't do this, there are better alternatives" messages at an abortion clinic) without saying anything about what they'd do about other points of view, like, oh... somebody beaming pro-abortion messages at the Saint Margaret's maternity unit at Saint Elizabeth's Hospital?

I wouldn't yet call it trampling on first amendment rights without reading a lot more detail on it, but I would say it's a sad double-standard.

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You are conflating reality with hypothetical.

The reality is that this company actually was doing this sort of thing, aimed specifically at women inside abortion clinics (in other states).

Let's talk when we run into an actual example of Planned Parenthood or NARAL sending ads about abortion to women in maternity ward.

Until then, there's no hypocrisy, because your example is just something you made up.

Being parochial, I don't know how laws work in other states, but Massachusetts has some pretty strong privacy protections (see the lawsuits over surreptitious audio recording, which, while filed in federal court, hinge on Massachusetts state laws). Sometimes that means a potential conflict between the First Amendment and those protections. In this particular case, the attorney general acted to protect the privacy of women in a particularly vulnerable setting against the right of right-wingers to bombard them with their messages while they're sitting inside a clinic. To use your own hypothetical example, you wouldn't want zealots of any stripe to burst into a medical center or clinic and scream at patients. Or would you?

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In this particular case, the attorney general acted to protect the privacy of women in a particularly vulnerable setting against the right of right-wingers to bombard them with their messages while they're sitting inside a clinic.

That's only true IF they have an app or their browser setup to tattle their location to anyone that asks for it and IF they open that app or their browser to a website that requests ads from this particular ad company's pool (it's not clear if they are somehow tied into Google's ad networks or their own or what) and IF they open that app/browser while they're in the clinic.

This system is passive and it's intended for downstream viewing at later times when you're on your phone. It's just using the geofence to trip a criteria for which ads to show.

I searched Google for Volkswagen, then I come to UHub and I get an ad for Boston Volkswagen in Watertown. Should you have been allowed to show me that ad just because of my search history? A woman walks into a Planned Parenthood, then comes to UHub and gets an ad from a Christian pro-life group. Should you have been allowed to show her that ad just because of her location history?

That's the only difference here. One is ads based on my use of the internet (and not always on my phone...it can follow my Google profile *anywhere* I later view the internet from). The other is ads based on her use of GPS info on her phone and who she has allowed to know that info from her phone.

I don't like that companies can even ask that question of someone's phone, but I also think the objectionable nature of the message is clouding the issue and I feel a number of people are mischaracterizing the technology (without getting into the intentionality of why they might choose to do so).

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Pardon my language, but I have to know; What the fuck is wrong with you?

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Look, I'm pro free speech and antiabortion (and trust me, no mean comments here will have me rethink either of those positions), but this is creepy on so many levels.

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This is several kinds of evil, the least of which is them sending unsolicited robocalls to peoples' cellphones. For some reason, I thought that was illegal. This company deserves a large public shaming, so maybe they decide to do something else for their money. Preferably something that isn't evil.

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If they figured out a way to "randomly" call or perhaps even text people in the clinics, that would be one thing, but it's like pushing ads on a browser.

Still, creepy. Adam's analogy above is apt. People can ring your door bell, but they have no right to just enter your house.

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The more accurate analogy is for someone to see you play a round of golf and follow you home to record your address to put it on their golf store's spam address list.

I'm of two minds about this one. You do have control over not receiving these ads. Their ads are not actively pushed on your phone (they aren't texting people while they sit in the clinic). They're being pulled because your browser has acknowledged you meet their specific set of criteria which means your browser is allowed to know where you are/were and broadcast that to others too when they ask, like this ad company. That's preventable without needing a law.

However, I don't like the idea that companies can ask that question and if we want a law that says companies can't create selective audiences for their ads based on our coming and going, I'm ok with that too. It only takes a minimal amount of that kind of location-based data to very accurately attach otherwise "anonymous" data about you to a larger profile of you. It's amazing what data-crunching can do in that regard.

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Anyone looking at UHub on your phone?

Do you see any ads?

Do you know why you are seeing the ads you are seeing?

Would you say it is accurate to describe the ads as having been beamed into your phone?

Do you feel as if the ads on UHub violate your privacy?

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The ads I see when I am on the internet typically come in 2 ways-

-The owner of the website is paid to display ads (or they contract with another party, which I believe is most of the UHub ads)
-Cookies on your viewing machine use an algorithm to determine the ads displayed.

This is skewing the equation. To take it out of the realm of a controversial issue, imagine if Walmart used this so that when you were in Target you saw ads for what you could get with them. Imagine if Amazon or Barnes and Noble were doing this at libraries. Then add a generally controversial issue to the mix.

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