If you visit a coffee shop, you might start to see advertisements for coffee as you browse the internet. The technology behind that is called "geofencing" — it allows advertisers to target ads to consumers who visit certain locations using data gathered from their electronic devices.
This can lead to what some may consider annoying ads. In other instances, however, the ads could be considered harassment.
That distinction is at the center of an agreement between the Massachusetts attorney general's office and a Boston-based digital advertising company announced Tuesday. Under the agreement, Copley Advertising won't use geofencing around health care facilities in the state.
The settlement was prompted by a 2015 campaign in which Copley Advertising helped groups opposed to abortion send ads to women who visited Planned Parenthood and other health clinics across the country. Attorney General Maura Healey says this use of geofencing interferes with consumer's health privacy.
"My office believes that this kind of private medical information is not intended for commercial exploitation, especially when it’s gathered without knowledge or consent," Healey said Tuesday.
Copley Advertising targeted the ads to "abortion-minded women" who visited health clinics in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Missouri. The ads were triggered using a woman's location information from an internet-enabled device — such as a smartphone — once they were in or near the targeted area. The ads included messages such as “Pregnancy Help,” “You Have Choices” and “You’re Not Alone,” and directed people to a website with information about abortion alternatives. The company would serve these ads for up to 30 days after someone entered the target area.
The company did not run any ads targeted at health clinics in Massachusetts, according to the attorney general's office. But Healey's office sees Tuesday's settlement as a way to assure that doesn't happen. Using medical information to target people without their consent would violate the state's consumer protection laws, the attorney general's office said.
Copley Advertising, which bills itself as a "leader in mobile geofencing," has denied any wrongdoing.
"The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office singled out Copley Advertising to challenge what we believe was an exercise of free speech under the First Amendment," John Flynn, the company's owner, said in a statement. "Although we have not violated any laws, we made an agreement with the A.G.'s office so we can devote our time and resources to working for our clients. Their right to free speech should not be marginalized because government officials do not agree with the message of their advertisement."
Healey discussed the "benefits and boundaries" of geofencing at a panel event Tuesday morning at Facebook's Cambridge office. She said while the technology has some important consumer applications, medical information must be protected.
"As we move forward with new technologies — technologies that are really cool and enable us to do lots of things — we want to make sure that consumers don't get hurt in the process," Healey said.
Others on the panel highlighted the social benefits of geofencing — such as for sending out alerts during emergencies.
Steve Satterfield, a manager on Facebook's privacy and public policy team, pointed to Facebook's safety check feature, which allows people to indicate that they're safe during a disaster or attack.
"The way that we do that is we essentially draw a 'fence' around the affected area and if you're within the affected area you get a prompt to help you let your friends and family know that you are safe," he said.
Healey said her office would look at instances of geofencing on a case-by-case basis and overall wants to make sure companies adhere to privacy laws and consumer protection laws.