An anti-abortion group in Wisconsin used geofencing to target patients at Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health clinics with ads promoting bogus “abortion reversal,” according to a bombshell Wall Street Journal report published Thursday.
The group, Veritas Society—a nonprofit fund created by Wisconsin Right to Life—reportedly used the marketing gimmick to place anti-abortion ads in users’ Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat feeds between November 2019 through late 2022. Geofencing refers to the location-based technique that allows advertisers (or, say, anti-abortion groups) to direct specific ads to smartphone users (and their social feeds) in a particular area. Anti-abortion groups have taken advantage of these targeted ad opportunities to reach prospective patients at reproductive health clinics and other highly sensitive locations.
Some of the ads Veritas directed at people who entered Planned Parenthood clinics in Wisconsin read, “Took the first pill at the clinic? It may not be too late to save your pregnancy.” Those who clicked on these ads were directed to a website registered to Veritas that offered them two options: “I want to undo the abortion pill,” or “I am thinking about the abortion pill.”
So-called “abortion reversal” is a medically unproven, even dangerous practice that anti-abortion activists claim can stop a medication abortion that’s underway. Targeting clinic-goers with this misinformation is especially dangerous, as medication abortion has become the most common form of abortion since Roe v. Wade was overturned.
Veritas worked with a digital ad company that allegedly attained the unique identifiers of patients’ phones through a location data broker, Near Intelligence. But around the end of 2022, the unnamed ad company told the fund that it “had to stop because it was violating the company’s rules about targeting sensitive locations,” a former employee at the ad company told WSJ. It’s not clear why the company allowed Veritas to engage in this practice or why it took them nearly three years before realizing it was happening. Near Intelligence did not immediately respond to Jezebel’s request for comment, but a spokesperson told the Journal it doesn’t permit data extraction from abortion clinics, suggesting it stopped working with the ad company over its use of this data to target possible abortion seekers.
Before the campaign ended, Veritas boasted on its website that its geofencing campaign in Wisconsin yielded 14.3 million ad impressions in late 2019 and 2020 from mobile devices that had been carried into abortion clinics.
According to WSJ, Veritas once regarded its geofence strategy in Wisconsin as a step toward a “national campaign.” It sought other anti-abortion groups as partners, and even geofenced abortion clinics in Arkansas. But since the ad company Veritas worked with barred the organization from geofencing abortion clinics, its parent group, Wisconsin Right to Life, has been assessing whether to instead geofence bars and clubs “as another potential way to reach sexually active young women,” per WSJ.
Of course, the possible health and safety risks posed by “abortion reversal” aren’t the only threat that Veritas’ campaign posed, Reproaction’s deputy director Shireen Shakouri says. Location data can be used as evidence to build criminal cases against abortion patients, abortion seekers, or people who lose pregnancies or self-manage their abortions, Shakouri told Jezebel.
“When we’re in a time when people could very easily be criminally prosecuted for seeking abortion, beyond even just getting the procedure itself, this type of technology and how it’s being used has a lot of implications,” Shakouri said. Anti-abortion groups have been exposed using geofencing to target ads that try to dissuade patients from getting abortions as far back as 2016. The stakes have always been high since digital activities have often been used to surveil and criminalize pregnant people and abortion seekers. But post-Roe, as misinformation runs rampant and more states ban abortion like Wisconsin has, the threat has only grown.
WSJ reports that geofencing can potentially link someone’s phone to a real-life address and even a name, though it’s not clear whether Veritas was able to perform this. Cynthia Conti-Cook, technology fellow at the Ford Foundation and author of “Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary,” previously told Jezebel that law enforcement can obtain reverse geofence warrants to “ask Google for everyone within the radius of a specific location, at a specific time, based on their phones.” This allows police departments to “create a lineup from that to investigate crimes in a specific location and generate possible leads.” Just last year, a Vice investigation found one data broker sold location data incriminating potential abortion patients for as cheap as $160, potentially opening abortion patients to civil suits or litigation from abusive partners, or even criminal charges, based on the laws in their states.
Google, which has been in hot water after being exposed for breaking its promise last year to automatically delete all location data from “sensitive locations” including reproductive health clinics, shared internal data that shows the company received 11,554 geofence warrants in 2020 alone. Most of these warrants came from police departments in states with abortion bans.
“Technology often moves faster than the common person’s ability to understand it, or ability to understand the implications that has on their lives,” Shakouri said. “We need laws that restrict any type of geolocation advertising within a medical setting, or a buffer zone around any medical clinic—especially something as sensitive as reproductive care in this era.”