Modern political campaigning requires innovative tools and technology to facilitate canvassing, phone banking and other outreach. But the 2020 campaign apps released by President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden far exceed political organizing, instead exploiting careless users for valuable data.
Jacob Gursky and Samuel Woolley, researchers from the University of Texas, analyzed both campaign apps to see how they requested and collected user data. The findings, published in MIT Technology Review, speak to the importance of data collection and targeted messaging, and what lengths campaigns will now go to in order to reach an audience.
While the 2016 election was defined in part by data collection through Facebook — the Trump campaign was able to acquire psychological profiles of more than 230 million Americans, compiled using Facebook data, from Cambridge Analytica — public concerns about election integrity and security have shifted the battlefield to mobile apps. But this change has seemingly only emboldened campaigns to vacuum up more information.
According to Gursky and Woolley, both the Trump and Biden apps want to collect as much information about the phone contacts of a user as possible. Names and phone numbers are then cross-referenced with party voter files, and people are then targeted by the campaign with messages and advertising.
The Trump app takes things a step further, as its app makes extensive permission requests that grant it access to users’ location data, phone identity and control of a phone’s Bluetooth capabilities.
The Bluetooth control is particularly insidious, as it allows for data capture and targeted advertising as people travel through a physical space. Campaigns have experimented with placing Bluetooth beacons near important congregation spaces, such as churches, or even in campaign yard signs. Any time a person with Bluetooth activated passes by one of these beacons, their data is recorded and a digital data profile begins to grow.
These profiles, as 2016 proved, can provide campaigns critical information to reach voters with highly targeted messaging.
And, unlike on Facebook and other social media websites, where data collection was not always adequately labeled for users, apps are required to make their permissions requests known upfront. This means that the hundreds of thousands of people who have already downloaded the Trump and Biden campaign apps legally consented to these intrusions.
This speaks to a larger issue of carelessness surrounding digital data.
The fallout surrounding Facebook and its data collection did little to make people more thoughtful about what information they consent to sharing online and with whom.
So before downloading the Trump or Biden apps — or any other app, for that matter — take a moment to examine what exactly you are signing up for and consider if the intrusion in your life is worth the cost of admission.