Today’s Must-Read: Sue Halpern: “How the Trump Campaign’s Mobile App is Collecting Huge Amounts of Voter Data”

A wow story in the New Yorker:

On its face, Phunware seems like a strange choice to develop the campaign’s app. Before working for President Trump, Phunware’s software was being used in relatively few applications, the most popular being a horoscope app. And, since 2019, it has been embroiled in a lawsuit with Uber, a former client of the company’s ad-placement business. The dispute stems from a yearlong investigation by two former Phunware employees who discovered that the company was pretending to place Uber ads on Web sites like CNN when, in fact, they were appearing on pornography sites, among others, if they appeared at all. But, according to former Phunware employees and business associates, the company’s value to the Trump campaign is not in software development. “The Trump campaign is not paying Phunware four million dollars for an app,” a former business partner of the company told me. “They are paying for data. They are paying for targeted advertising services. Imagine if every time I open my phone I see a campaign message that Joe Biden’s America means we’re going to have war in the streets. That’s the service the Trump campaign and Brad Parscale”—the Trump campaign’s senior adviser for data and digital operations—“have bought from Phunware. An app is just part of the package.”

The Trump 2020 app is an enormous data-collection tool in its own right. When it launched, on April 23rd, Parscale, who was then Trump’s campaign manager, urged his followers on Facebook to “download the groundbreaking Official Trump 2020 App—unlike other lame political apps you’ve seen.” Despite the hype, the 2020 app recapitulates many of the functions found on the 2016 app. There’s a news feed with Trump’s social-media posts, an events calendar, and recorded videos. The “gaming” features that distinguished the 2016 app are still prominent—a “Trump’s army” member who accumulates a hundred thousand points by sharing contacts or raising money is promised a photograph with the President, while other members can use points to get discounts on maga gear. Users are prompted to invite friends to download the app—more points!—and can use the app to sign up to make calls on behalf of the campaign, to be a poll watcher, to register voters, and to get tickets to virtual and in-person events….

To access the Trump app, users must share their cell-phone numbers with the campaign. “The most important, golden thing in politics is a cellphone number,” Parscale told Reuters. “When we receive cellphone numbers, it really allows us to identify them across the databases. Who are they, voting history, everything.” Michael Marinaccio, the chief operating officer of Data Trust, a private Republican data company, said recently that “what’s new this year, or at least a sense of urgency, is getting as many cell-phone numbers as we can in the voter file data.” An effective way to do that is to entice supporters to share not only their own cell-phone numbers with the campaign but those of their contacts as well. One estimate, by Eliran Sapir, the C.E.O. of Apptopia, a mobile-analytics company, is that 1.4 million app downloads could provide upward of a hundred million phone numbers. This will enable the Trump campaign to find and target people who have not consented to handing over their personal information. It’s not unlike how Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest the data of nearly ninety million unsuspecting Facebook users, only this time it is one’s friends, family, and acquaintances who are willfully handing over the data for a chance to get a twenty-five-dollar discount on a maga hat….

So how did Phunware obtain a billion unique device I.D.s? As the company described it to the S.E.C., they were collected from phones and tablets that use Phunware’s software. But, according to people who have worked with the company, in addition to the data it obtains through its software, Phunware has been using its ad-placement business as a wholesale data-mining operation. When it bids to place an ad in an app like, for example, Pandora, it scoops up the I.D. of every phone and tablet that would have been exposed to the ad, even if it loses the bid. By collecting and storing this information, the company is able to compile a fairly comprehensive picture of every app downloaded on those devices, and any registration data a user has shared in order to use the app.

This information can yield rich demographic data. If a campaign is looking for young men with an affinity for guns, for instance, it might look at who has downloaded both Call of Duty and CCW, the Concealed Carry Fifty State app. Then, using the location data associated with the device I.D., the data can be unmasked and linked to an individual. Once a campaign knows who someone is, and where a person lives, it is not difficult to start building a voter file, and using this information to tailor ads and messages.

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