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AG settles with ad firm to prevent targeted ads to women at reproductive health clinics

An ad agency was using "geofencing" technology to send advertisements to women entering reproductive health clinics about alternatives to abortion.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

A Boston-based advertising company reached an agreement Tuesday with Attorney General Maura Healey to refrain from sending targeted digital ads to people entering health care facilities in Massachusetts, including reproductive health and family planning clinics.

The deal reached by Healey with Copley Advertising concerns the use of technology called geofencing, which allows ads to be sent to unsuspecting consumers through their web browsers or mobile apps once they enter a defined area.

Copley Advertising had been hired in 2015 to use geofencing to send advertisements to women entering reproductive health clinics about alternatives to abortion. The company set up geofences around family planning and methadone clinics in Columbus, New York, Pittsburgh, Richmond, and St. Louis, but not in Boston or anywhere else in Massachusetts.

"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," Healey said in a statement. Healey also joined the public policy manager of Facebook in Cambridge on Tuesday morning for a panel discussion on the "benefits and boundaries" of geofencing.

In the case of Copley, when a person crossed into the geofenced area, Copley tagged the person's device ID and pushed ads to that device for up to 30 days, the attorney general's office said. Ads presented to those individuals included text like "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."

Though Copley has said it has not conducted such geofencing in Massachusetts, the settlement announced Tuesday "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" without consent.

In a tweet Tuesday morning, Healey said the harm caused by geofenced advertising "could range from a mere annoyance to harassment."