Anyone with a smartphone is familiar with the litany of privacy permissions that users are asked to approve upon downloading a new app. Yet while few users would balk at a photo-editing app asking for permission to access your camera, how might you feel about Donald Trump's app asking to download your entire contact list?
Now, a research team at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Media Engagement has found that President Donald Trump's reelection campaign and — to a lesser extent — former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign are mining personal data from unsuspecting users who download their bespoke campaign apps.
"Purpose-built applications distributed through the App Store and Google Play Store allow the Trump and Biden teams to speak directly to likely voters," Jacob Gursky and Samuel Woolley, who are members of the center's Propaganda Research Team, wrote in an article for MIT Technology Review. "They also allow them to collect massive amounts of user data without needing to rely on major social-media platforms or expose themselves to fact-checker oversight of particularly divisive or deceptive messaging."
Gursky and Woolley go on to describe how, while Trump's app is multifarious, Biden's app is designed primarily for relational organizing. When users of the Biden app download it, they are asked to share their contact list, where individuals who might support Biden are identified. The app then asks users to send personalized messages to these individuals.
By contrast, the official app for Trump 2020 asks for far more privacy permissions. The Trump app "wants to read your contacts and know your precise and approximate location (GPS and network based). . . . It requests the ability to read your phone status and identity (a vague permission that sometimes gives access to unique device numbers), pair with Bluetooth devices (such as geolocation beacons), and perhaps read, write, or delete from SD cards in the device." In order to function, users must give the app their phone number (they are sent a verification code to verify they gave a real number); they also must provide full name, zip code, and an email address.
In other words, Trump's campaign wants to know all your contacts, where you are, and who you are. "They want as much voter data as possible . . . . and will use it in any way they see fit," the researchers wrote.
Describing the campaign apps as "part of a larger system of surveillance capitalism," Gursky and Woolley argue that the data they compile essentially allows the campaigns to create detailed lists of citizens and their networks. They draw on India as an example of where this might lead: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing nationalist similar to Trump, has one of the most widely used politician's apps in the world, having been downloaded more than 10 million times from the Google Play Store. Gursky and Woolley describe the app as "a fertile propagator of misinformation. . . . [Modi and] his party, the BJP, also engages in extensive data targeting campaigns, bolstered by data broker equivalents and the social stratification imposed by the caste system." Trump's app has been downloaded a reported 780,000 times so far.
Gursky and Woolley note that Trump's app is already sending out "highly questionable or entirely disproven information" including articles titled "Media Continue to Spread Debunked Theory About Tear Gas," "Media Mask-Shamers Keep Getting Caught Breaking Their Own Rules" and "Top 8 Moments from Joe Biden's Embarrassingly Disastrous, Epically Boring Livestream."
"People should think twice about downloading most apps," Brian Krebs, a former reporter for The Washington Post who now writes for the blog Krebs On Security, told Salon. "I'm not defending anyone's practice of snarfing up all the data they can with these apps for that, but it's fairly common and I'd wager that many, many people simply don't pay attention to what permissions are being requested when they install these things."
Yosef Getachew, Media & Democracy Program Director at Common Cause, expressed a similar sentiment.
We have a "glaring lack of privacy protections [in] this country," Getachew told Salon, pointing out that there is "no federal framework for privacy." Regarding the Trump app specifically, Getachew noted that it is "pretty invasive, and one of the things that we would like to see in a federal framework is some sort of data minimization policy, where your company or service provider is only required to collect data necessary to run the surface."
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale drew attention to the campaign's data harvesting last week when he tweeted, in advance of the president's Tulsa rally, "Just passed 800,000 tickets. Biggest data haul and rally signup of all time by 10x." It was later revealed that those numbers had been likely inflated by TikTok users and K-pop fans, many of whom made fake reservations to the rally in the hope that low turnout would humiliate Trump.
In July, Salon spoke with Julian Wheatland — the former acting CEO of British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica — which harvested data from Facebook to manipulate voters deemed "persuadable" into voting for Trump.
"I think we made a difference on the Trump Campaign," Wheatland told Salon. He said that such granular voter data was extremely useful in helping the Trump campaign micro-target voters. Infamously, the Trump campaign also used its granular data to depress turnout for Clinton. As Bloomberg News reported in 2016:
On Oct. 24, Trump's team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he'd created of Clinton delivering the "super predator" line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: "Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators." The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook "dark posts"—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as [Brad] Parscale puts it, "only the people we want to see it, see it." The aim is to depress Clinton's vote total. "We know because we've modeled this," says the official. "It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out."
Salon reached out for comment to the Biden and Trump campaigns, and has not heard back.