AG Reaches Settlement with Advertising Company Prohibiting ‘Geofencing’ Around Massachusetts Healthcare Facilities
Advertising Company Targeted People Entering Reproductive Health Clinics with Ads on Their Mobile Devices
BOSTON – A digital advertising company that was hired to use mobile geofencing technology to target women entering reproductive health facilities has been prohibited from doing so in Massachusetts pursuant to a settlement announced today by Attorney General Maura Healey.
Geofencing is a technology that allows digital advertising companies to direct advertisements to users through browsers and applications on their devices when those users are located in a designated territory.
“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,” said AG Healey. “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.”
Copley Advertising, LLC (Copley) is a company based in Massachusetts and owned and managed solely by John F. Flynn of Brookline.
In the spring of 2015, Copley was hired to direct targeted advertisements—using geofencing—to “abortion-minded women” sitting in waiting rooms at health clinics.
Geofencing creates a virtual “fence” around a specified location that is tripped when a person crosses the “fence” with a phone or other mobile device. Once the geofence is tripped, an advertiser will attempt to display an ad in an open app or web browser on the person’s mobile device. The ad is typically tailored to that location and other information about the user. The mobile device also may be tagged so that advertisements can be directly pushed to it whenever the same app or browser page is opened in the future. Consumers may not realize when they installed these apps that the app would disclose their location information for purposes unrelated to the app, including advertising.
In its advertising campaign, Copley set mobile geofences at or near reproductive health centers and methadone clinics in Columbus, New York City, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and St. Louis. When a consumer entered the geofenced area near these locations, Copley tagged the consumer’s device ID and served advertisements to the consumer’s device for up to 30 days.
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.
The settlement, resolved through an Assurance of Discontinuance filed today in Suffolk Superior Court, resolves allegations that Copley’s practices would violate consumer protection laws in Massachusetts by tracking a consumer’s physical location near or within medical facilities, disclosing that location to third-party advertisers, and targeting the consumer with potentially unwanted advertising based on inferences about his or her private, sensitive, and intimate medical or physical condition, all without the consumer’s knowing consent.
The settlement assures that Copley will not use geofencing technology at or near Massachusetts healthcare facilities to infer the health status, medical condition, or medical treatment of any individual.
This matter was handled by Assistant Attorney General Jared Rinehimer and Director of Data Privacy and Security and Assistant Attorney General Sara Cable of AG Healey’s Consumer Protection Division, with assistance from Investigator Kristin Salera of AG Healey’s Civil Investigations Division.