Some personal injury law firms now automatically target online ads at anyone who enters a nearby hospital’s emergency room and has a cellphone. The ads may show up on multiple devices for more than a month. sshepard/Getty Images hide caption
Patients sitting in emergency rooms, at chiropractors’ offices and at pain clinics in the Philadelphia area may start noticing on their phones the kind of messages typically seen along highway billboards and public transit: personal injury law firms looking for business by casting mobile online ads at patients.
The potentially creepy part? They’re only getting fed the ad because somebody knows they are in an emergency room.
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The technology behind the ads, known as geofencing, or placing a digital perimeter around a specific location, has been deployed by retailers for years to offer coupons and special offers to customers as they shop. Bringing it into health care spaces, however, is raising alarm among privacy experts.
“It’s really, I think, the closest thing an attorney can do to putting a digital kiosk inside of an emergency room,” says digital marketer Bill Kakis, who runs the Long Island, N.Y.-based firm Tell All Digital. Kakis says he recently inked deals with personal injury law firms in the Philadelphia area to target patients.
Law firms and marketing companies from Tennessee to California are also testing out the technology in hospital settings.
“Is everybody in an emergency room going to need an attorney? Absolutely not,” Kakis says. “But people that are going to need a personal injury attorney are more than likely at some point going to end up in an emergency room.”
The advertisers identify someone’s location by grabbing what is known as “phone ID” from Wi-Fi, cell data or an app using GPS.
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Once someone crosses the digital fence, Kakis says, the ads can show up for more than a month — and on multiple devices.
To Kakis, this is just modern-day target marketing. In his pitch to potential clients, in an email reviewed by WHYY, he calls the technology “totally legit.”
But Massachusetts’ attorney general, Maura Healey, offers a different response.
“Private medical information should not be exploited in this way,” Healey says. “Especially when it’s gathered secretly without a consumer’s knowledge, without knowledge or consent.”
Healey’s office was the first in the country to go after geofencing technology catching people while they are seeking care.
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Prosecutors there reached a deal last year with a Massachusetts-based digital advertising firm that was sending advertisements from a Christian pregnancy counseling and adoption agency to people who entered Planned Parenthood clinics. When patients would go to the clinics, they’d also cross a digital fence and soon get advertisements such as “You have choices” and “Click here for pregnancy help.”
Healey’s deal claiming violations of the state’s consumer protection act for the ads being allegedly “unfair and deceptive” resulted in banishment of the digital firm from Massachusetts.
Directing ads at people for seeking medical care is really a kind of digital harassment, Healey says.
“We just want to make sure that companies aren’t exploiting information in violation of existing privacy laws with respect to health information that’s so sensitive,” she says.
Most consumers realize that their phones are basically a tracking device, says Bill McGeveran, an attorney who teaches Internet and technology law at the University of Minnesota. It is one thing to feel targeted in a grocery store, he says, but it feels far more intrusive when it creeps into other parts of daily life.
“I think information about health, sexuality, finances, political views, people feel really differently about than they do about the brand of toothpaste they prefer,” McGeveran says. “And a higher level of sensitivity makes sense with this kind of sensitive information.”
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