- Researchers analysed Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign apps.
- Trump’s asks for access to much more of the user’s personal data than Biden’s, including location and Bluetooth data.
- The software for Trump’s app is being developed by a company known for specializing in targeting people using location data.
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Researchers have analysed President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign apps. Of the two apps, Trump’s hoovers up far more of its users’ data.
Jacob Gursky and Samuel Woolley of the University of Texas’ Propaganda Research Team analysed both apps and wrote about their findings in the MIT Tech Review.
According to Gursky and Woolley, Trump’s app launched in mid-April and has garnered 780,000 downloads. Broadly speaking the app allows users to engage with the Trump campaign, enabling people to sign up to volunteer, get tickets for events, and livestream the president’s rallies.
It also has a “social” and “news” tab which provides a curated feed of tweets and articles, some of which don’t cite their source and don’t have bylines saying who wrote them. Headlines include “Top 8 Moments from Joe Biden’s Embarrassingly Disastrous, Epically Boring Livestream” and “Media Continue to Spread Debunked Theory About Tear Gas.”
Biden’s app meanwhile, called Team Joe, is more specifically geared towards getting users to campaign for Biden to their contacts. “The Team Joe app is an organising tool that allows you to text your friends in support of Joe and get updates from the campaign,” the app’s description reads on the Play Store. “We’ll let you know which of your friends and family members we’re hoping to talk to. You can then text them directly to share campaign updates, ask questions, and gather their thoughts on the 2020 race on behalf of our campaign!”
The key difference between the two apps identified by the researchers is this: Trump’s app has a much longer list of permission requests than Biden’s. “It 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,” the researchers write.
Gursky and Woolley make a particular point of the app’s requests for Bluetooth permissions. Increasingly Bluetooth is being used to target people with advertising based on a specific location. A technology called Bluetooth beacons can be stationed somewhere and used to target people who walk past them. Beacons have been used near churches to target congregations with political advertising, and even inside yard signs.
Not only can beacons be used to target people who walk past, they can be used to build up profiles which can then be sold on to third parties. “[Apps] are plugged into different marketplaces, so if you open up Facebook or Google Maps or Candy Crush, even though you didn’t explicitly do anything – if you have location access enabled on those apps, that app will record your location at the instance you opened that app, and then that information can be sold to a third party,” an unnamed political consultant told the researchers.
One of Gursky and Woolley’s team also found the app was built on an older version of Android’s operating system which has fewer privacy protections. In May it was announced that a company called Phunware, a campaign advert targeting company known for using location data, would be providing software to update the app.
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