ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
These days, not even doctor visits are safe from data tracking by advertisers. As Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports, personal injury law firms in particular see opportunity there, while others see an invasion of privacy.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: You may have had the experience before. You're in the toothpaste aisle of a grocery store. And all of a sudden, advertisements for Colgate are flashing on your Facebook feed. Now the next time you're in an emergency room, you might feel just as digitally stalked when you look at your phone and see ads from personal injury law firms fishing for your business. Here's the potentially creepy part. You're only getting fed the ads because somebody knows you're in the ER. And if they could, they'd install a 3-D ad to grab your attention.
BILL KAKIS: It's really the closest thing (laughter) I think that an attorney can (laughter) do to putting a digital kiosk inside of an emergency room.
ALLYN: That's Bill Kakis. He's a Long Island-based digital marketer who recently made deals with personal injury law firms in the Philadelphia area to send ads to people in emergency rooms. Other law firms and marketing companies from Tennessee to San Francisco are also testing this out in hospital settings.
KAKIS: Is everybody in an emergency room going to need an attorney? Absolutely not. 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.
ALLYN: The advertiser knows where you are by using technology known as geofencing. In this case, they draw a digital circle around a hospital. And when you cross into it, ads start popping up on websites you go to on your phone. The advertisers know your location by grabbing your phone ID from Wi-Fi, cell data or an app using GPS. Retailers have been using this for years. And Kakis says it's, quote, "totally legit" to expand it to hospitals. But attorney general of Massachusetts Maura Healey doesn't think so.
MAURA HEALEY: Private medical information should not be exploited in this way, especially when it's gathered secretly without consumers' knowledge - without knowledge or consent.
ALLYN: Healey's office was the first in the country to crack down on geofencing technology in healthcare spaces. Prosecutors there banned a Massachusetts-based digital advertising firm from the state after it sent people who entered Planned Parenthood clinics advertisements such as, you have choices, from a Christian pregnancy counseling and adoption agency.
Talking to people coming in and out of emergency rooms, one thing is clear. Some people find these kinds of targeted ads are preying on people when they are the most vulnerable. Take Joe Finnegan. He was recently leaving a hospital in Philadelphia and says, as a patient, he thinks his trip should be private.
JOE FINNEGAN: You couldn't put a physical fence up. Why would you be able to put a cyber fence up? I don't get it.
ALLYN: Finnegan says unknowingly crossing into an area where he's being digitally monitored freaks him out.
FINNEGAN: If they're tracking every move in that regard, what else are they watching?
ALLYN: It's a relatable feeling, says Bill McGeveran. He teaches Internet and technology law at the University of Minnesota. He says it's one thing to feel like you're being watched in a grocery store. But for many consumers, it seems far more intrusive when it creeps into the more personal parts of life.
BILL MCGEVERAN: Information about health, sexuality, finances, political views people feel really differently about than they do about the brand of toothpaste they prefer.
ALLYN: McGeveran says the Federal Trade Commission could clamp down if information is being shared in a sneaky way. But he says the feds have been slow to combat phone tracking in hospitals. Meanwhile, Kakis, the advertiser, says business is booming. He says the digital ads aimed at people in emergency rooms are catching on fast.
KAKIS: Within a few weeks, we pretty much (laughter) had every hospital picking up (laughter) in downstate New York area.
ALLYN: He says in his initial talks with law firms looking for clients, he's used this pitch before. What's your target demographic for injured people? Well, there isn't one because everybody gets injured. For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia.
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