Greetings from Nicaragua, where abortion is about to be made even more illegal than it already is. On the eve of a heated presidential election, the executive committee of the Nicaraguan National Assembly is poised to accept a proposal that would remove the 130-year-old therapeutic abortion provision from Nicaragua's penal code. Their action would make abortion illegal in Nicaragua without exception - including, that is, in cases where a pregnant woman's life was at risk, or in case of rape, incest, or fetal malformation. If the proposal is accepted, Nicaragua will join El Salvador and Chile as one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere where abortion is totally illegal. For a thoroughly chilling portrait of how this will affect Nicaraguan women's lives, read Jack Hitt's "Pro-Life Nation."
Greetings from Nicaragua, where abortion is about to be made even more illegal than it already is. On the eve of a heated presidential election, the executive committee of the Nicaraguan National Assembly is poised to accept a proposal that would remove the 130-year-old therapeutic abortion provision from Nicaragua's penal code. Their action would make abortion illegal in Nicaragua without exception – including, that is, in cases where a pregnant woman's life was at risk, or in case of rape, incest, or fetal malformation. If the proposal is accepted, Nicaragua will join El Salvador and Chile as one of the few countries in the Western Hemisphere where abortion is totally illegal. For a thoroughly chilling portrait of how this will affect Nicaraguan women's lives, read Jack Hitt's "Pro-Life Nation."
The proposal to render therapeutic abortion illegal as put forth by the powerful evangelical [img_assist|nid=1002|title=Behind a banner denouncing “pro-life” hypocrisy, protesters hold silhouettes representing women who have died from illegal, unsafe abortions.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=279|height=211]and Catholic lobbies here, joined by a growing number of anti-abortion NGOs, and bolstered by a misinformation campaign. It's supported by three out of the four presidential candidates up for election this November – right-wing candidate Eduardo Montealegre proudly marched against abortion last Friday in a demonstration organized by a coalition of Christian and right-wing organizations, under a banner that read "Pro-life: No Exceptions". Nice slogan, guys, but what about women's lives? I hate to be a stickler for grammar, but when you're lobbying to make life-saving abortions illegal, that seems like a fairly glaring exception.
In a demonstration of their zeal for life, the anti-abortion coalition would like to [img_assist|nid=1005|title=A young pregnant woman’s belly reads, “I decided!”|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=200]modify the penal code so that it includes 20 years in prison for anyone who performs an abortion (including loss of medical license for any doctors who perform abortions), increased to 30 years in prison if the woman doesn't survive the procedure (from which we can deduce, I suppose, that a fetal life is worth twice as much as a woman's life). The National Assembly's executive committee has informed the anti-abortion coalition that introducing these new punishments would entail a lengthy legal process, whereas simply eliminating the therapeutic abortion provision from the penal code could take as short as two or three weeks. The coalition, understandably, has gone for the fast-track option, which means that therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua could be a thing of the past by November.
Yesterday, over a thousand women gathered from across the country [img_assist|nid=1004|title=The Nicaraguan Association for Men Against Violence hold a banner that reads “Condemning Women to Imprisonment or Death is Violence: Yes to Therapeutic Abortion!”|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=258|height=194]to press the National Assembly to reconsider their decision – since women's lives literally depend on it. The demonstration brought together members of the Autonomous Women's Movement, members of women's collectives from across the country, and feminists of all ages. Nicaraguan men marched side by side with women to show solidarity – I was walking in front of a banner held by the Association of Men Against Violence that read "Condemning Women to Imprisonment or Death is Violence." ¡Adelante, compañeros! Now if only the National Assembly would listen before it's too late…
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[img_assist|nid=1003|title=A woman stands in front of an anti-abortion poster that reads “In Nicaragua, 100 children like this one are murdered every day” with her own message: “I love my daughters, I love my family, I love life: I have the right to therapeutic abortion.”|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=344|height=457]
Abortion Eve used the stories of fictional girls and women to help real ones understand their options and the law. At the same time the comic explained how to access abortion, it also asserted that abortion was crucial to women's health and liberation.
“Can you picture a comic book on abortion on the stands next to Superman?”
In June 1973, Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli wrote to the National Organization for Women in Chicago, asking this question of their “dear sisters” and pushing them to envision a world where women’s experiences could be considered as valiant as the superhero’s adventures. They enclosed a copy of their new comic book, Abortion Eve.
Published mere months after the Supreme Court’s January 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, Abortion Eve was intended to be a cheap, effective way to inform women about the realities of abortion. Like the fewother contemporaneous comic books dealing with abortion, Abortion Eve‘s primary purpose was to educate. But for a comic dominated by technical information about surgical procedures and state laws, Abortion Eve nonetheless manages to be radical. Though abortion had so recently been illegal—and the stigma remained—the comic portrays abortion as a valid personal decision and women as moral agents fully capable of making that decision.
The comic follows five women, all named variations of “Eve,” as counselor Mary Multipary shepherds them through the process of obtaining abortions. Evelyn is an older white college professor, Eva a white dope-smoking hippie, Evie a white teenage Catholic, Eve a working Black woman, and Evita a Latina woman. Evelyn, Eve, and Evita are all married and mothers already.
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Their motivations for getting an abortion differ, too. Evita and Eve, for instance, wish to protect themselves and their loved ones by keeping their families smaller. Sixteen-year-old Evie is the poster child for sexual naiveté. Pregnant after her first time having sex, she spends most of the comic wrestling with guilt. “It’s all so ugly!” she exclaims. “I thought sex was supposed to be beautiful!”
Nonplussed, the older Eves talk her through her choices. As Eve reminds her, “Like it or not, you are a woman now, and you are going to have to decide.”
In an interview with Rewire, Farmer said that the plot of Abortion Eve was a direct outgrowth of her and Chevli’s experiences in the nascent women’s health movement. Both women had started working as birth control and “problem pregnancy” counselors at the Free Clinic in Laguna Beach, California, soon after it opened in 1970. Archival documents at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute show that Chevli and Farmer visited Los Angeles abortion providers in December 1972, on a business trip for the Free Clinic. According to Farmer, one of the doctors they met approached the pair with the idea of doing a comic about abortion to publicize his clinic.
Earlier that year, the women had produced one of the first U.S. comic books written, drawn, and published by women, Tits & Clits alpha(the “alpha” distinguished the comic from subsequent issues). So they took the doctor’s idea and ran with it. They decided to use their newly founded comics publishing company, Nanny Goat Productions, to educate women, particularly teenagers, about abortion.
At the Free Clinic, Chevli and Farmer had seen all kinds of women in all kinds of situations, and Abortion Eve attempts to reflect this diversity. As Farmer noted in an interview, she and Chevli made sure that the Eves were all different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to demonstrate that all kinds of women get abortions.
Farmer had made the choice to get an abortion herself, when her IUD failed in 1970. The mother—of a 12-year-old son—who wasputting herself through college at the University of California at Irvine, she decided that she couldn’t afford another child.
California had liberalized its abortion laws with the Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, but the law was still far from truly liberal. Before Roe, California women seeking abortions needed doctors (a gynecologist and two “specialists in the field”) to submit recommendations on their behalf to the hospital where the abortion would take place. Then, a committee of physicians approved or denied the application. Only women who could pay for therapeutic abortions—those needed for medical reasons—could get them.
For Farmer, as for so many others, the process was onerous. After an hour, the psychiatrist who had interviewed her announced that she would not be eligible, as she was mentally fit to be a mother. Stunned, Farmer told the doctor that if he denied her an abortion, she would do it herself. Taking this as a suicide threat, her doctor quickly changed his mind. She wrote later that this experience began her political radicalization: “I was astounded that I had to prove to the state that I was suicidal, when all I wanted was an abortion, clean and safe.”
Farmer and Chevli began work on Abortion Eve before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal in many states. After the Supreme Court’s decision, they added a page for “more info” on the ruling. Yet even as they celebrated Roe, the women weren’t yet sure what would come of it.
The comic reflects a general confusion regarding abortion rights post-Roe, as well as women’s righteous anger over the fight to gain those rights. On the day of her abortion, for example, Evita tells Eve that, at five months pregnant, she just “slipped in” the gestational limits during which women could have abortions.
Eve explains that women now have the right to an abortion during the first three to six months of a pregnancy, but that the matter is far from settled in the courts. After all, Roe v. Wade said that states did have some interest in regulating abortion, particularly in the third trimester.
“I get mad when they control my body by their laws!” Eve says. “Bring in a woman, an’ if the problem is below her belly button and it ain’t her appendix, man—you got judges an’ lawyers an’ priests an’ assorted greybeards sniffin’ an’ fussin’ an’ tellin’ that woman what she gonna do an’ how she gonna do it!”
Abortion Eve confrontsthe reality that abortion is a necessity if women are to live full sexual lives. Writing to the underground sex magazine Screw in September 1973 to advertise the comic, Chevli noted, “Surely if [your readers] screw as much as we hope, they must have need for an occasional abortion—and our book tells all about it.”
Six months after they published the comic, in December 1973, Chevli and Farmer traveled to an Anaheim rally in support of Roe outside the American Medical Association conference. They were met by a much larger group of abortion opponents. Chevli described the scene in a letter to a friend:
300 to 8. We weren’t ready, but we were there. Bodies … acquiescing, vulnerable females, wanting to show our signs, wanting to be there, ready to learn. Oh, Christ. Did we learn. It was exhausting. It was exciting. We were enervated, draged [sic] around, brung up, made to feel like goddesses, depressed, enlightened … bunches of intangible things. I have rarely experienced HATE to such a massive extent.
That wasn’t the last feedback that Chevli and Farmer received about their views on abortion. In fact, during the course of Nanny Goat’s publishing stint, the majority of complaints that the independent press received had to do with Abortion Eve. Several self-identified Catholics objected to the “blasphemous” back cover, which featured MAD Magazine‘s Alfred E. Neuman as a visibly pregnant Virgin Mary with the caption: “What me worry?”
As archival documents at the Kinsey Institute show, other critics castigated Chevli and Farmer for setting a bad example for young women, failing to teach them right from wrong. One woman wrote them a letter in 1978, saying “You have not only wasted your paper, time, money, but you’ve probably aided in the decision of young impressionable girls and women who went and aborted their babies.”
Farmer and Chevli responded to such charges by first thanking their critics and then explaining their reasons for creating Abortion Eve. In another response, also in the Kinsey archives, Chevli wrote, “Whether abortion is right or wrong is not our concern because we do not want to dictate moral values to others. What we do want to do is educate others to the fact that abortion is legal, safe, and presents women with a choice which they can make.”
Today, abortion opponents like Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson (R) frame abortion as the “dismemberment” of unborn children, suggesting that women who seek abortions are, in essence, murderers. With Abortion Eve, Chevli and Farmer dared to suggest that abortion was and is an integral part of women’s social and sexual liberation. Abortion Eve is unapologetic in asserting that view. The idea that abortion could be a woman’s decision alone, made in consultation with herself, for the good of herself and of her loved ones, is as radical an idea today as it was in the 1970s.
Women who have visited almost any abortion clinic in the United States have seen anti-choice protesters outside, wielding placards and chanting abuse. A Boston advertiser's technology, when deployed by anti-choice groups, allows those groups to send propaganda directly to a woman’s phone while she is in a clinic waiting room.
Last year, an enterprising advertising executive based in Boston, Massachusetts, had an idea: Instead of using his sophisticated mobile surveillance techniques to figure out which consumers might be interested in buying shoes, cars, or any of the other products typically advertised online, what if he used the same technology to figure out which women were potentially contemplating abortion, and send them ads on behalf of anti-choice organizations?
The executive—John Flynn, CEO of Copley Advertising—set to work. He put together PowerPoint presentations touting his capabilities, and sent them to groups he thought would be interested in reaching “abortion-minded women,” to use anti-choice parlance.
Before long, he’d been hired by RealOptions, a network of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in Northern California, as well as by the evangelical adoption agency Bethany Christian Services.
Flynn’s endeavors quickly won him attention in the anti-choice world. He was invited to speak at the Family Research Council’s ProLifeCon Digital Action Summit in January this year, and he got a few write-ups in anti-choice press.
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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.”
Flynn’s targeting of women seeking abortion presents a serious threat to the privacy and safety of women exercising their right to choose, as well as to abortion providers and their staff, a Rewire investigation has found. But due to weak and patchwork laws governing privacy and data collection in the United States, the conduct appears to be perfectly legal.
Women who have visited almost any abortion clinic in the United States have seen anti-choice protesters outside, wielding placards and chanting abuse. This technology, when deployed by anti-choice groups, allows them to send propaganda directly to a woman’s phone while she is in a clinic waiting room. It also has the capability to hand the names and addresses of women seeking abortion care, and those who provide it, over to anti-choice groups.
“It is incredibly unethical and creepy,” Brian Solis, a digital marketing expert, told Rewire, expressing a view that was unanimous among a dozen experts in digital security, privacy law, and online marketing we interviewed for this story.
Solis said this example was the inevitable application of a technology meant for one purpose—mass advertising campaigns that, while considered by many people to be unseemly and intrusive, do not generally amount to a threat—to a very different, and troubling, objective.
“You can grab an uncomfortable amount of information from someone’s device and the apps they use,” said Solis. “It’s unfortunate, but any woman who plans to visit an affected Planned Parenthood, or anyone who works for Planned Parenthood, should be afraid.”
When Ads Follow You Around
By now, most Americans have experienced the following phenomenon: You look at something online—a hotel, a flower delivery service, a course at a local college—and the next thing you know, ads for that thing follow you around the internet for the next week.
A watch you looked at now pops up next to your Facebook feed; an ad for a coffee machine you researched on Amazon now lurks on your favorite news sites. And maybe, after researching cars online, it seems that Toyota knows whenever you visit a lot, and sends ads to your phone as you walk through the dealership’s doors.
This is all part of the new landscape of digital advertising, where marketers can tailor their ads to very specific groups of consumers by compiling “personas” based on the thousands of shards of data we all create as we go about our activities online.
While theoretically anonymous, these marketing personas are surprisingly accurate. Marketers likely know your age, gender, occupation, education level, marital status, and—if you have GPS enabled on your phone and are logged into apps that track you—where you live, work, and travel.
What Flynn realized is that he could use the same technologies to infer that a woman might be seeking an abortion, and to target her for ads from anti-choice groups.
“We can reach every Planned Parenthood in the U.S.,” he wrote in a PowerPoint display sent to potential clients in February. 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.”
Flynn explained that he would then use that data to send anti-choice ads to women “while they’re at the clinic.”
In his sales PowerPoint, Flynn said that he had already attempted to ping cellphones for RealOptions and Bethany nearly three million times, and had been able to steer thousands of women to their websites. The price tag for one of Copley’s campaigns, he said, was $8,000.
Flynn initially agreed to speak with Rewire for this story, but did not respond to multiple follow-up emails and phone calls. Much of this report is based on materials that he sent to people he believed to be potential clients. Numerous messages seeking comment from management for RealOptions went unanswered; Jennifer Gradnigo, a spokesperson for Bethany Christian Services, confirmed that they have used Copley’s services and “appreciate their ideas,” but declined to discuss specific campaigns.
Not everyone who received Flynn’s pitch emails was impressed. One recipient contacted Rewire after speaking with Flynn, and expressed horror at what Flynn told her he was able to do on behalf of anti-choice clients.
“I felt disgust, and I felt protective of these women who are going to seek sensitive medical services at a time when they’re vulnerable,” said the recipient, who is a social worker at a Northern California adoption agency. Rewire agreed to withhold her identity due to her fears of retaliation from anti-choice activists.
“They’re being spied on by this capitalist vulture who is literally trying to sell their fetuses,” she said. “To do this to women without consent is predatory and it’s an invasion of her privacy, and unethical.”
In emails and PowerPoint presentations sent in early March, Flynn claimed to have reached more than 800,000 18-to-24-year-old women on behalf of RealOptions, and to have sent more than 2,000 of those women to RealOption’s website.
Rewire obtained three examples of the ads that Flynn said he had sent to young women’s phones on RealOptions’ behalf.
The ads are typical of CPCs.
They ask, “Pregnant?” or “Abortion?” and then include statements like “It’s your choice. You have time… Be informed” and “Get the facts first.”
Like most CPCs, the claim that RealOptions provides “facts” about abortion is deceptive. While that language may lead women to believe they could obtain abortion care at RealOptions, 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.”
According to its website, RealOptions has received funding from the radical Christian group Focus on the Family. The organization was founded in 1981 by Marion and Tom Recine, fervent Christians who in a video posted to their website refer to the “many, many, many women who’ve come to Jesus because of the [RealOptions] centers.”
Flynn also says that he has targeted 140 abortion clinics on behalf of Bethany Christian Services over the past few months, and that 10,000 people clicked on the ads for Bethany that he sent to smartphones in those clinics, directing them to a “dedicated resource centers landing page.”
The social worker who received Flynn’s pitch deck told Rewire she was alarmed that Flynn had succeeded in reaching so many women on behalf of his anti-choice clients.
“He’s doing it and it’s working and it’s probably really impacting human trajectories,” she said. “It changes human lives to be funneled into a system like this.”
Advertising Is Now a System of Surveillance
Although it is now ubiquitous, mobile digital advertising is a relatively new phenomenon, only as old as the sophisticated smartphones on which it relies. As a result, laws and the regulators who enforce them are lagging behind when it comes to the many possible ways that bad actors can abuse smartphone advertising.
In terms of federal laws, many either don’t apply to Flynn’s conduct, or would allow it, according to Chris Hoofnagle, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law, and School of Information.
“Privacy law in the U.S. is technology- and context-dependent,” Hoofnagle said. “As an example, the medical information you relay to your physician is very highly protected, but if you go to a medical website and search for ‘HIV’ or ‘abortion,’ that information is not protected at all.”
In other words, it’s almost certain that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, would not apply.
The other limitations, such as they are, come from two sets of laws. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general can prevent advertisers from sending false and misleading ads; they can also stop advertisers from lying about what information they are tracking and what they plan to do with it once collected.
The FTC did not reply to Rewire’s questions in time for the publication of this story. However, the commission does not have jurisdiction over nonprofits, so it is highly unlikely that it could take action in this case.
The second set of laws concern user consent. Companies like Verizon and AT&T, known as carriers, are required to get affirmative consent before using “Customer Proprietary Network Information” gleaned through cellphone towers—including call records and location—for marketing. Apps don’t use network information, but rely instead on the GPS built into phones. They also need to obtain affirmative consent to collect and use information for marketing.
Obtaining that consent is easier than many consumers may think.
“The reality of this stuff is that no one’s asking what marketers will do with their information when they click, ‘I Agree,’ when an app asks if it can use their location,” Hoofnagle said. “If one consents to that tracking, and consents for it to be used for advertising purposes, that’s pretty much the end of the story.”
Certainly, most people wouldn’t imagine that by agreeing that, say, Yelp, Snapchat, Tinder, or the New York Times could use their location, that marketers could then use the same information for the very different purpose of figuring out whether they are seeking sensitive medical services.
Hoofnagle says that such use is perfectly legal, as long as companies don’t lie about what information they’re collecting—even if those disclosures are buried in fine print.
For his part, John Flynn is confident that his campaign is within legal bounds.
“I have worked with pharma, medical recruitment and many others where we mobile geo-fenced medical centers without a problem,” he wrote in an email to a potential client. “Bethany’s campaign targeted just medical centers and there was [sic] no issues. RealOptions in the San Jose area is presently targeting colleges and medical centers without issue.”
In the absence of robust legal limitations in the United States, advertisers have organized into self-regulatory bodies to police themselves, acutely conscious that examples of egregious privacy violations could spark a public backlash, and lead consumers to block ads and to opt out of targeted marketing.
Lindsay Hutter, a spokesperson from the Direct Marketing Association (DMA)—a New York-based group that represents direct marketers—said in an email statement to Rewire:
A key pillar of DMA’s work is to ensure that data-driven marketers conduct their work on an ethical basis, respecting the private information of consumers. This is particularly true for sensitive medical information about particular individuals, the use of which for marketing purposes without permission is against DMA’s Ethical Guidelines. Any location-based marketing should be opt-in, with the consumer notified that marketing offers are being presented due to their location.
Hutter did not provide a direct reply to our questions as to whether targeting women who might be seeking abortion care on behalf of anti-choice groups would be in violation of DMA’s guidelines.
It would, however, violate Facebook’s standards, according to Tom Channick, a company spokesperson.
“Our policies prohibit ads that make implications, directly or indirectly, about a user’s personal characteristics, including medical condition or pregnancy,” Channick said. “Deceptive or misleading advertisements are also prohibited.”
Flynn claims that he has a “relationship” with Facebook that allows him to “place mobile and digital ads in Facebook pages,” but Channick said the company could find no record of Flynn or his company ever using their platform.
Calling Flynn’s campaigns “really objectionable,” Hoofnagle said that these kinds of practices are toxic to the digital advertising industry, as well as the platforms—like Google and Facebook—that depend on advertising dollars.
He said this example drives home the fact that the nature of advertising has fundamentally transformed with the rise of the internet, and as smartphones have become ubiquitous.
“Advertising is a system of surveillance now,” Hoofnagle said. “It used to be billboards and television. Now it’s surveillance.”
Extremists Could Use Women’s Phones to Learn Their Names and Addresses
Surveillance has long played a central—and deadly—role in the efforts of anti-choice activists to intimidate women out of accessing abortion care, and to stop providers from making it available.
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.
Sasha Bruce, senior vice president of campaigns and strategy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, says that tagging the cellphones of women who go to abortion clinics falls within the pattern of intimidation.
“Intimidation frankly is the lowest threshold—that quickly turns to violence,” Bruce said. “That’s part of what’s troubling about this. There’s a real incitement that this information can contribute to.”
Bruce said she was alarmed in particular because Flynn was not just collecting information about what women looked at online, but also about their physical locations.
“If you have the smartphone ID, and then you can tie that to a location outside of the clinic, let’s say a home, that’s a real security threat,” Bruce told Rewire. “I worry about the extension of that—the desire of anti-choice activists to know who these staffers are, and who the women are.”
To be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that Flynn or his clients have or want to use geo-fencing to learn the real identities of women seeking abortion. But experts told Rewire that the potential for others to abuse the technology is a cause for alarm. In keeping with the view that transparency fosters security, Rewire has chosen to outline the ways this tracking could be misused.
In theory, when marketers gather information about individual smartphone users through methods like geo-location, that data is anonymized, meaning that it is not attached to a person’s name, but rather to a unique number known as an “advertising ID.” That is the number associated with the particular copy of the operating system that each of us has downloaded onto our smartphone. If you use a Google phone, your operating system is Android; for iPhone users, it’s your copy of iOS. Much of what you do on your phone can be associated with that advertising ID.
In most cases, marketers want to collect data from millions of potential customers, said John Deighton, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, in an interview with Rewire. The more data they have, the more ads they can send, which enhances their database.
“What your story is drawing to my attention is that these same surveillance technologies can be used at a much more micro scale,” he said. “You could imagine outright illegal use of geo-targeting: for example, geo-targeting a rich person’s house and getting an alert when they leave home.” That could, say, lead to high-tech burglary.
“Once you start realizing you can target desirable individuals, instead of being a big data function it becomes about tiny data,” Deighton said.
But if all of the data that marketers collect is supposed to be anonymized, how could bad actors—including anti-choice extremists—figure out the actual identities of the people they track?
The dirty secret of digital marketing is that it is in fact relatively easy to find out the real identities that are attached to our online IDs, according to experts who spoke with Rewire.
The most obvious way is simply to ask people for that information.
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.
That would allow anti-choice groups to literally see women’s whereabouts in real time, said digital marketing experts who spoke with Rewire anonymously because they were not authorized to speak with the press. They described marketing software that allows them to see targeted individuals’ locations, the same way you can see yourself as a blue dot on a smartphone map. If certain people were seen at an abortion clinic regularly—say, during work hours—Flynn or his clients might even be able to infer that they work there.
“That’s what scares me about your story,” said Deighton. “Now we have an incentive to track people that isn’t the usual big data incentive.”
The question naturally arises: What can abortion providers and the women they serve do to fend off these digital affronts?
The simplest measure Planned Parenthood, or any other abortion provider, could take is to tell patients to leave their smartphones at home or in the car. If that isn’t possible or practical, the best advice is to turn off their GPS and log out of all apps before they come to a clinic.
It’s a simple step, but one that many people either won’t or don’t take, said Cooper Quintin, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to preserving fundamental rights in the age of technology.
“The way we need to fight back against this is by blocking these things that are tracking who we are and where we are and what things we’re looking at,” Quintin told Rewire. EFF considers location-based tracking to be a serious threat to privacy.
“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.”
Editor’s Note: Watch our video for info on how to avoid location-based tracking.