Washington, DC has created a spectrum of punitive laws that lead to and exacerbate unsafe work environments for sex workers and contribute to the skyrocketing rates of HIV infection among vulnerable populations in the District.
Sex workers around the world face numerous violations of
their human rights, many of which are rooted in the law.Laws justify and enable discrimination
against sex workers by state agents including the police.These violations contribute to a lack
of access to health services for sex workers, particularly for women and
transgender women who are already HIV- positive.
International Community of Women Living with HIV AND AIDS and The Women’s Collective analyzed the legal barriers faced by sex workers seeking access to health services in Washington,
DC, and the ways in which these barriers exacerbate the modern HIV epidemic in the District,
which has one of the highest prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the country.(At the time of this research we
were both legal fellows at our respective organizations).
Sex workers are highly vulnerable to contracting HIV in
Washington, DC.There are many
factors contributing to this vulnerability:
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Sex work being criminalized means
that it is often practiced under the radar, and without the protection of
the law.This makes it
difficult for health service providers to access sex workers and build the
necessary relationships to provide important information and services.
workers are stigmatized for being sex workers by public health agencies,
providers, and police. Therefore there is often discomfort and distrust in accessing
services and service providers and many health concerns like sexually
transmitted infections go undetected, and untreated.
rates of sexual violence and coercion, which make sex workers vulnerable
to contracting HIV through coerced unprotected sex.
often means an inability to negotiate condom use.
sex workers experience violence they may not be taken seriously by the
police and may be unable to access legal protections and remedies, and
necessary health services.
often harass service providers who are providing care to sex workers
particularly where there is also a provision for clean needles.
workers are not able to collect employment based health insurance, this
means that many individuals may be without insurance and unable to receive
the care that they need.
sex materials can be considered indicators for being a sex worker and
police harassment creates a disincentive for carrying condoms.
Given the treatment of sex workers generally, it was no surprise to find in our research that like many other parts of the world,
Washington, DC has created a spectrum of punitive laws that lead to and exacerbate unsafe work
environments for sex workers and contribute to pushing women already vulnerable
to contracting HIV further underground. One such law is the DC Prostitution
The District of Columbia enacted the Prostitution Free Zones
law in April 2007. By this time D.C. was well aware of the seriousness of their
HIV and AIDS epidemic and the disparate impact oh HIV on women of color, gay
men, and other marginalized communities. The law allows the Chief of Police to
declare a public area a Prostitution Free Zone (Zone) for a period of ten days
during which police may clear the area and make arrests of any people who are believed to
be “congregating for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or
prostitution-related offenses” and who refuse to leave the Zone.
Zones are often erected to push sex
workers out of commercial and populated parts of the District; areas that tend
to provide more safety for sex workers because they are not isolated, dark, and
void of foot and car traffic.Normally
the police must have probable cause to make any arrest. Within the Zone, the
probable cause standard, used to protect citizens’ rights, is circumvented and
police may arrest anyone they merely believe to be engaged in
In the process of lowering the standards for arrest, the health of sex
workers is placed in grave danger by procedures used by the D.C. police to
determine who is a sex worker. Police
confiscation of safer sex tools like condoms for use as evidence of intent to
engage in prostitution is not uncommon. Anecdotal evidence suggests that having
three or more condoms is considered a proxy for being a sex worker. Practices like these that discourage the
procurement and use of condoms by sex workers, undermine the efforts of
non-profit groups who do outreach with sex workers, and is an outrageous policy
in a city that has the highest HIV rates in the country.
Prostitution Free Zone laws, like most punitive approaches
to commercial sex work, do further damage by disproportionately affecting the
health and safety of the District’s most vulnerable sex workers – those who
work on the street.Sex workers
are already marginalized and discriminated against by both the larger community
and the police due to their race, ethnicity, and/or gender. The District of
Columbia currently has an HIV AND AIDS rate of epidemic proportions, affecting
people of color and sexual minorities at shockingly disproportionate rates. The
Prostitution Free Zones law increases the difficulty of survival and decreases
the safety of
street based sex workers by pushing sex workers into darker and more
isolated areas where they feel unsafe and more vulnerable to harassment,
assault, and robbery.
The combination of police harassment; being pushed into
darker and less safe areas; and the confiscation and utilization of safer sex
tools as evidence against sex workers makes the already daunting, but
life-saving negotiation by sex workers with clients on safer sex practices more difficult.Currently, some of the populations hardest hit by both HIV and AIDS and the District’s prostitution laws–including transgender women and Latinos–are also either entirely absent from, or
highly underreported in the current epidemiology surveys.Consequently, public health responses have
been untargeted, inappropriate, or underfunded.
For example, neither the Washington DC HIV and AIDS,
Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration (formerly the HIV and AIDS Administration),
nor the Center for Disease Control currently keep data on the HIV and AIDS
rates of transgender women even though this population is most vulnerable to HIV
AND AIDS due to limited economic opportunities, gender and appearance
discrimination, and discrimination in health care and other services.
Reducing HIV prevalence in the District of Columbia requires
building trust between vulnerable communities and public health agencies,
providers, and police; it requires synthesizing laws and policies to promote
public health outcomes that improve people’s rights and quality of life.
Instead, retrogressive policies perpetuate rights violations, harassment and fear.Laws like the Prostitution Free
Zones that put any member of the DC community at greater risk for contracting HIV must be amended or eliminated as a matter of human rights and sound
public health policy.Eliminating
punitive and ineffective laws allows sex workers to not only access the health
services they need but also help participate in the design and implementation
of programs leading to greater success in alleviating the HIV epidemic in
Washington D.C. Making these
changes are crucial to curtailing the skyrocketing rates of HIV in the District
especially among women of color, including transgender women, some of the most
underserved populations in the nation’s capitol.
Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, written by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies. Rather, it focuses on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.
In 1966, Ida Phillips, a single mother working as a waitress, sat down at her kitchen table and wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. She told him her story: Despite her qualifications, Phillips had been told by a Martin Marietta employee not to apply for an assembly-line position at one of the construction-material company’smanufacturing plant. The job would have paid more than double what she was making as a waitress. It included a pension plan and insurance, benefits unavailable in most female-dominated industries at the time (and which since have only marginally improved.) The reason Phillips was turned away? She was a woman with a preschool child.
That letter, Phillips’ subsequent lawsuit, and her Supreme Court win would help spark a civil rights revolution in the workplace—one with consequences that reverberate today.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. And it was Phillips’ case, and the nine others profiled in the book, that would ultimately shape that law into one that, decades later, is an important tool in advancing gender and sex equality. As Thomas explained to Rewire in an interview, Title VII it is not just a foundational piece of civil rights legislation important for its historical effect on workplace equality. In the face of anti-transgender bathroom bills and statewide “religious liberties” legislation sweeping the country, it is a crucial tool for pushing equality forward.
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Thomas’ book is organized along three key themes in employment discrimination law: pregnancy-related workplace policies, gender stereotypes in the workplace, and sexual harassment. Those themes act as an inroad toward thinking more broadly about how, in Thomas’ words, we achieve “substantive equality” in the workplace. They illustrate how early fights over promotions and workplace policies that kept women out of certain jobs due to concerns of harming their potential fertility foreshadowed the legal showdowns over contraception coverage in employee health-care plans in cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby andZubik v. Burwell.
“The subject matter areas that I saw [as a researcher and employment discrimination litigator] were, number one, women’s capacity for pregnancy, and then their subsequent roles as mothers, which, historically, has played a huge role in their second-class status legally,” Thomas told Rewire. “Women of color have always been seen as workers, irrespective of whether they had children, so that’s not an entirely universal stereotype. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that generally pregnancy and motherhood have proven to be enormous conflicts in terms of what equality looks like when you have these distinct differences” in how race and gender are perceived.
Take, for instance, the case of Peggy Young and the question whether an employer can refuse to make on-the-job accommodations for pregnant employees when it does so for nonpregnant employees. Young, another one of the women featured in Thomas’ book, was a United Parcel Service (UPS) “air driver” who became pregnant. When Young told her employer she was pregnant, UPS told her they couldn’t accommodate the light-lifting recommendation made by Young’s medical providers. Instead, UPS told Young, she would have to take unpaid medical leave for the remainder of her pregnancy.
In March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against UPS, vacating the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had supported UPS’ policy. The decision produced a new test for assessing pregnancy discrimination claims and sent Young’s case back to the lower courts for another look. Not long after the Roberts Court’s decision, UPS and Young settled the lawsuit, bringing an end to Young’s case.
The decision was a qualified win for advocates. The Roberts Court had accepted Young’s argument that UPS had no legitimate business reason for failing to accommodate her particular request, but the decision went short of ruling businesses must accommodate any pregnancy request.
But Because of Sex doesn’t stop at unpacking overt discrimination like the kind detailed in Young’s 2015 case or Phillips’ one in 1966. The book also takes a look at what the law has described as more “benevolent” kinds of discrimination. These include employment policies designed to “protect” women from endangering possible future pregnancies, such as prohibiting women employees from working jobs where they may be exposed to hazardous chemicals.
“It really all boils down to two issues that we are talking about in all these things,” Thomas explained, when discussing workplace policies that, employers have argued, were put in place to protect their female employees from potentially endangering a pregnancy. “One is [employers] ignoring hazards that apply to men and making women into baby-making machines. And number two is [employers] treating health effects or health hazards on the job as reasons for diminishing women’s opportunities, instead of arming women with information and assuming that they will make the right choice for themselves.”
This disconnect is most apparent in the case of United Automobile Workersv. Johnson Controls, Inc., another case Thomas highlights in her book. In 1982, the car battery manufacturer Johnson Controls sent a memorandum to all its employees that said “[w]omen who are pregnant or who are capable of bearing children will not be placed into jobs involving lead exposure or which would expose them to lead through the exercise of job bidding, bumping, transfer or promotion rights.”
The policy amounted to a demotion for many female employees and a closed door for others.
Title VII actually permits employers, in a limited context, to have employment policies that discriminate on their face, such as policies that permit churches to only hire members of the same faith. Johnson Controls argued its policy of keeping women out of certain positions due to employer concerns of health risks to future pregnancies fit within Title VII’s narrow window for permitting explicit discrimination.
The Supreme Court would eventually rule in 1991 that Johnson Controls’ policy violated Title VII because it forced female employees to have to choose “between having a child and having a job,” thereby rejecting the argument made by Johnson Control’s that a woman’s fertility—or infertility—can in most situations be considered a bona fide occupational qualification.
As Thomas noted in her book, “It was no coincidence that fetal protection politics were most prevalent in well-paid, unionized industries from which women historically had been excluded. Indeed they had been excluded precisely because they had been deemed physically unsuited for the dirty, sometimes strenuous work.”
But “in female-dominated fields, though, fetal protection policies made no business sense; they effectively would gut the workforce. That reality apparently trumped any hypothetical harm to employees’ future pregnancies,” Thomas wrote.
In other words, these policies didn’t exist in female-dominated fields.
Johnson Controls may have helped grant women the agency to determine how and when they earned a paycheck with regard to policies targeting their potential fertility, but it hardly ended the debate around when and how employers attempt to diminish women’s opportunities related to their roles as potential mothers. This has played out in the hundreds of lawsuits over the contraception benefit, for example.
In other words, if Johnson Controls had settled the question of whether a woman’s fertility was an appropriate grounds for discrimination, we would not have Hobby Lobby.
Because of Sex draws another connection between the historical fight over Title VII and the contemporary one: How do employers adjust workplace policies around shifting gender norms, and when is it discriminatory if they don’t? The law asks, “What are women supposed to want to do?” said Thomas in her interview with Rewire. “What work are they able to do? What work do they want to do? [Given] assumptions and stereotypes that are about their abilities, their preferences, their interests and how [they are] conforming to [those] in terms of stereotypes about what femininity is—what [are] women … supposed to look and act like?”
Gender nonconforming behavior, and the manner in which employees experience discrimination as a result of that behavior, is a key component over the debate around transgender rights. But it would take a “shrill” woman and the birth of the notion of “workplace harassment” to get us and the law there first.
By every measure, Ann Hopkins should have been made a partner in the global accounting firm Price Waterhouse. She was smart. Ambitious. Worked hard and constantly outperformed her peers. But it was those very attributes that her male partners deemed “too aggressive” or as evidence that she needed “charm school,” and ultimately used to deny her a partnership that by every objective measure she had earned.
The Supreme Court would ultimately disagree. In 1989, it ruled Hopkins should have been made a partner and that the comments relating to her demeanor amounted to improper gender stereotyping, a violation of Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions.
If Hopkins was initially shut out of workplace advancement due to her defiance of feminine stereotypes, so too are women subjected to on-the-job harassment, as Thomas draws out in Because of Sex. “Sexual harassment didn’t even have a name in 1974, but was such a prevalent force driving women out of the work force, driving them into different jobs [and] subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas further explained in her interview.
1974 was the year Mechelle Vinson first hired a lawyer to represent her in a case against her boss, who was chronically sexually abusing her on the job. But at the time, courts largely wrote off those kinds of complaints as a kind of chasing-around-the-office, and not sexual harassment, or in Vinson’s case, on-the-job rape. As described by Thomas in her book, “throughout the 1970s, many courts responded to complaints about abusive bosses with a collective shrug that conveyed, ‘You can’t blame a guy for trying.'”
“Sexual harassment was such a prevalent force driving women out of the workforce, driving them into different jobs, and subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas told Rewire.
That “you can’t blame a guy for trying” attitude hasn’t completely gone away as far as the federal courts are concerned. After all, in 2013 the Roberts Court in Vance v. Ball Statemade it even harder for employees to bring workplace harassment suits, and employees still face losing jobs for “being too cute” or having their sexuality be a perceived threat to their employer’s ability to remain professional in the workplace.
Which is why, in the fight over transgender bathroom access in 2016, Title VII should be a powerful force in defeating these latest attempts to stymie social progress. The idea that “you can’t blame a guy for trying” has morphed into “how the hell can we police gender roles if we don’t know where you pee.” That’s thanks almost entirely to the manner in which the law has wrestled with gender stereotypes under Title VII, Thomas explained.
In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, issued the landmark decision Macy v. Holder, which held that employment discrimination based on transgender status was a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Then in 2015, it issued a ruling stating that denying employees access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity is also a violation of Title VII. Meanwhile several federal courts of appeals have ruled that Title VII protects against gender identity discrimination.
But the Roberts Court has yet to weigh in.
“I think sexual orientation in a way is the sort of a final frontier” in Title VII litigation, said Thomas. “The court seems really fixated on this idea of analogizing very precisely from Hopkins. In other words, if you look or act in a way that doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes then, OK, [the courts] can understand that’s sex discrimination,” said Thomas. “But if your identity is not conforming to stereotypes in that you, you know, are romantically attracted to someone of your sex, that is harder for [the courts] to get, even though it’s obviously the most obvious manifestation of stereotype.”
This is, in many ways, a fight that started in the workplace—one that eventually got the backing of the Obama administration before becoming a flashpoint of conservative election-cycle politics. Thomas’ book doesn’t close on a prediction of what the next big Title VII fight will be per se, but it is impossible to finish it and not see the narrative threads of the historical fight for workplace equality woven throughout the the contemporary one. Sex. Gender. How the law understands and navigates the two. All this is what makes Thomas’ Because of Sex the closest thing to an assigned reading I can make.
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.