New technology is allowing companies to tailor ads to consumers based on the locations they visit, but privacy experts warn that sort of tracking could cross the line when people visit areas where they may expect a heightened level of privacy, such as medical centers, houses of worship and courthouses.
Geofencing gives advertisers the ability to draw a virtual “fence” around a location. Once a person with a phone enters that perimeter, companies can target ads to device owners without their knowledge.
It’s an effective advertising tool, according to digital marketing companies.
“We can get all the way down to a 25 square foot radius of a location,” said Justin Croxton, Managing Partner of Atlanta-based Propellant Media. “You can target people at individual malls, at car dealerships, at individual restaurants. We just want to talk to those people who are most likely to have an interest in what we have to say.”
Croxton said geofencing is a growing field, and most uses that he’s seen have been for legitimate marketing purposes. For example, his firm has helped car dealerships geofence competitors’ locations to target customers.
“Someone going to a car dealership…is someone who is most likely to buy a vehicle,” Croxton said.
But privacy experts said geofencing creates a gray area. They said there’s nothing stopping advertisers or anyone from geofencing “sensitive” areas, such as hospitals, polling places, schools and beyond.
“Really what we are talking about is what’s appropriate and what environment?” said privacy attorney Peter Hanna.
Hanna points to the example of “digital ambulance chasers” – personal injury attorneys who solicit business by sending ads to people inside emergency rooms.
“It tries to monetize their grief or their suffering or their struggle,” Hanna said.
Hanna said sending a targeted ad to the cell phone of a person in a waiting room is far different than a billboard parked right outside the hospital.
“There’s a certain intimacy that we have with our personal devices that we don’t have with a billboard,” Hanna said.
Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, said she received unwanted ads when she was visiting her ill father in hospice.
“I would get ads in my email inbox from assisted living homes. I even got an ad for burial insurance,” Williams said. “It was personally disturbing, and it did feel quite invasive.”
Elected leaders are paying attention
In Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey said a digital marketing company crossed the line when it used mobile geofencing to target women entering Planned Parenthood locations with anti-abortion ads. The AG’s Office prohibited the company from continuing the practice.
“Consumers are entitled to privacy in their medical decisions and conditions,” Healey said. “This settlement will help ensure that consumers in Massachusetts do not have to worry about being targeted by advertisers when they seek medical care.”
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office said geofencing may be beneficial to consumers, such as receiving a coupon while walking past a store, but it too would be concerned about “uses that pose privacy breaches, like an instance of a person receiving an ad while at their doctors’ office.”
Rep. Williams said she will explore setting “safe zones” where geofencing would be off-limits.
“Things like health clinics, hospitals, places of worship, political gatherings – all those are sensitive areas to most people,” Williams said.
At a minimum, Williams said apps should notify users any time location data is being collected and shared. She has introduced the Geolocation Privacy Protection Act, which was vetoed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner. Trade groups and media companies also opposed the legislation.
Geofencing in the 2020 Election
Croxton and privacy advocates expect geofencing to play a big role in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
Both political parties in Michigan have utilized the tool in the 2016 election, according to Crain’s Detroit. The Michigan Republican Party geofenced mega-churches to identify evangelical voters who may share the GOP’s conservative stance on social issues. The Democrats geofenced a handful of precincts in Detroit to send messages to voters at the polls, Crain’s reported.
Users who don’t want to receive targeted ads should turn off location services on their phone and apps.