Existing online means leaving a trail. This data, tracked from site to site with cookies and spun through IP addresses, can reliably tell where a person is, what they’re looking at online, and do so fast enough to sell an ad for just that thing the person was looking at in the next tab they open. When people search the internet on their smartphones, much of that information, especially location, is baked in. Advertisers can find people based on their behavior and target them instead with very specific, political ads, like anti-abortion messages to women in Planned Parenthood clinics. Which they’re doing.
Such clinics have in the past faced violent assault, including last November’s fatal attack on the Colorado Springs clinic. More commonly, people going into clinics are greeted (or harangued, depending) outside by others opposed to the work of the clinics. Physical privacy standards, like buffer zones outside clinics, are so contentious they’ve made it to the Supreme Court, where they were defeated in a 9-0 decision in 2014. Yet the privacy inside clinics is still protected, with patients free from outside sloganeering. Unless that sloganeering comes through their cell phones.
Advertising skirts traditional privacy protections, and targeting mobile ads by available demographics, and especially by location, is a potent tool for people trying to make a political statement. It’s one our laws are ill-equipped to handle.
Digital law theorist Ryan Calo wrote in 2013 that:
This is a case we’re seeing right now with the specific targeting of people in clinics, but the political utility of targeting specific people with specific ads, based not on consumer preference, but on political goals, is something we’re likely to see more of. If there is no privacy on our phones, then what is privacy in the modern world?