Millions of citizens involved in the 2020 presidential campaign, including organizers, volunteers and fervent supporters, have downloaded a campaign app like Vote Joe or Trump 2020.
When they download it, users give the app their phone number, thereby subscribing them to a stream of texts encouraging them to get more involved. The Biden app asks for access to user’s contact list. The Trump asks for access to user’s GPS and Bluetooth data.
It’s a lot of information to give away, but most of us are used to the exchange by now. After all, apps from Google Maps to Angry Birds to Instagram collect tons of user data, and advertisers have been scooping up as much of it as they can for years. Hyper-targeted commercial advertising is the norm.
Now, politicians are catching up to the advertisers. That has many privacy advocates concerned, including Sam Woolley, an assistant professor and the project director for propaganda research at the University of Texas at Austin.
“People have gotten really used to this idea that we just give away our data, whether it’s we give away our data to Google Maps or we give away our data to third party applications or to Facebook,” Woolley says, “The thing that’s particularly worrying about campaigns, political campaigns, using applications to gather data is that they’re using it for politics. They’re using it in attempts to kind of game the democratic system.”
Right now, the two parties have different approaches. For Democrats, the name of the game is “relational organizing” — getting supporters to reach out to friends and family on behalf of the campaign.
That’s why the Vote Joe app asks for access to user’s contact list. If permission is granted, the app matches a user’s contacts with the national voter file, allowing them to filter friends and family by political affiliation, voting history, and whether or not they live in a battleground state, thereby helping volunteers understand where their efforts would be best spent.
It’s a strategy that the Obama team implemented with great success in 2008 and 2012, and while it may seem pretty innocuous, Woolley says we have reason to be concerned.
“This relational organizing, it’s a coin with two sides,” he says. “The best way to change someone’s mind about something that they believe in politically is to talk to them and to know them. But also, the best way to manipulate someone is also to get someone that they care about to share information with them.”
As this outreach strategy becomes less personal and more automated, the potential for manipulation grows.
Republicans haven’t implemented relational organizing to near the same degree. But the Trump 2020 app is a clear example of their data collection strategy. Built by Phunware, the Austin-based mobile software company well-known for its advanced location tracking capabilities, Trump 2020 is a gamified outreach tool, news aggregator, media creator, and virtual events platform, with a maximalist approach to data collection.
“The difference between even the Trump and the Biden campaign is so profound, it’s not even funny,” says Phunware CEO Alan Knitowski, “That’s the difference between building a Ferrari and having a beat-up used pickup truck.”
Trump’s app requires a phone number, full name, email and zip code to sign up, and users are immediately asked to share their location information. While the app says it needs this to show users events in their area, Woolley’s research associate Jacob Gursky says the campaign could easily use it for other purposes.
“All these tiny things, the contact list to send text messages, the location to find rallies, all these things are collected, centralized and out of your power how they’re used.”
In the past, Republicans have put Bluetooth beacons in lawn signs to track who passes by, a company called Beacontrac told Mashable, and have set up geofences around churches to identify attendees of Catholic Mass who aren’t registered to vote, according to NPR. Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale has spoken openly about the vast amount of voter data gathered at Trump’s rallies.
Woolley doesn’t know exactly how the campaign is using location information right now, but he speculates that it could be tracking voter’s most sensitive comings and goings.
“They want to know if you’re going to church on Sunday or if you’re going to the shooting range or if you’re going to the abortion clinic. And then once they have that kind of information, they can triangulate that information with other data points that they have in order to really get you with personalized advertising.”
As Woolley and Gursky see it, the main problem is that all of this is legal. Republican or Democrat, any politician could gather all this data. And even though users are opting in, they may have no idea how their personal information is really being used.
“We need really strict regulation upon both the commercial side and the political side of data gathering,” Woolley says, citing Europe’s GDPR as a model for setting strict regulations regarding transparency, consent, and user control over personal data.
“Regular people don’t have time on their hands to figure out how much data is being gathered about them,” he adds. “It’s not that they’re not smart. It’s just they don’t have the time and that they’re really overwhelmed. And so we’ve got to do something more about it.”