The Industry

It Looks Like the Trump Campaign’s App Will Track Users’ Locations. Is That Normal?

Photo illustration of an ambiguous-looking mobile app with a Make America Great Again hat on top of the "Enter" button.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

In 2016, the Donald Trump campaign released an app called America First, which had about 120,000 registered users. Created by uCampaign, the app functioned both as a social network for Trump supporters and a tool for collecting data stored in a phone’s address book—such as the names, emails, and home addresses of both users and their saved contacts. For 2020, the Trump campaign again plans to offer an app to the president’s supporters, and it will likely collect some of their personal data. But this time, it appears the focus will be on tracking users’ locations.

Last week, the Intercept reported that a Texas company called Phunware had been hired by American Made Media Consultants, a firm set up to handle advertising services for PACs supporting Trump’s reelection effort, and that the deal was in conjunction with the Trump 2020 campaign. Phunware specializes in using phone location data to target messages to people. The company’s work for Trump’s 2020 effort caught people’s attention in part because its board of advisers includes Brittany Kaiser, a former employee of the disgraced political-data firm Cambridge Analytica and a self-styled whistleblower.

Phunware initially wouldn’t say what it was doing for Trump campaign, but it was safe to assume it involved tracking voters’ locations. The company has in the past provided political campaigns and organizations with data sets that include phone location histories, which ad-targeting companies typically gather by tapping into the location capabilities of weather, games, and other types of mobile apps. These clients have included Republicans and Democrats. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported that a political action committee working to unseat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 used Phunware’s ad-targeting platform to deliver online ads to people who attended events like the Women’s March.

When I reached out to Phunware recently, however, the company denied doing anything like that for the Trump campaign. Instead, its chief operating officer, Randall Crowder, told me the firm is developing a yet-to-be-released campaign app for Trump’s 2020 reelection bid that would “support engagement at functions such as rallies.” He would not say what the app will do since it’s not live yet. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

While the company has helped to build apps for companies like Fox and CBS, this is its first time doing so for a national political campaign. “The reason why they [the Trump campaign] chose us was because we have a really powerful platform that’s specifically built for native mobile,” said Phunware Executive Vice President Matt Lindenberger.

The Washington Post reported in July that the president’s 2020 campaign was developing a mobile app, known internally as the “Trump app,” to galvanize supporters and “capitalize on the energy at rallies.” One of the Post’s sources said that the app will allow supporters to register to vote, get updates from Trump, and win VIP seats at rallies. It’s unclear if that app is the same one Phunware is building. But Politico reported in September that the Trump app “is expected to let the president‘s team track followers in a more comprehensive way than ever before,” a task that would seem to play to Phunware’s expertise. The CEO of uCampaign, which built the 2016 app, also told Politico that his company was not helping to develop the app for Trump’s 2020 campaign. Phunware would not say whether any other companies are also involved in developing the app.

Although Phunware executives declined to discuss any specifics about the app, they agreed to speak generally about how the company thinks about political campaign apps. Lindenberger said the company was exploring ways to connect to users at rallies and to urge them to donate after they’ve left the events. “When you’re at a rally or you’re at an event, this is where the virtual and the physical come together,” he said. “Our platform lights up those experiences with notifications and messages that are specifically designed for that location. […] We use beacons and other indoor positioning, so we can make the experience of while you’re there richer.”

Beacons are devices that use Bluetooth to ping and collect the IDs of nearby phones that have a particular app downloaded on them. Phunware advertises its beacons as a way to allow phone users to track their locations inside buildings like airports and hospitals, and for shops to gain insight into the demographics and buying behaviors of people who visit. (Retail stores often use beacons to track which departments shoppers are visiting.) Beacons can also send messages to phones when they approach a particular location. Over the summer, the Trump campaign added language having to do with beacons to its privacy policy: “We may also collect other information based on your location and your Device’s proximity to ‘beacons’ and other similar proximity systems, including, for example, the strength of the signal between the beacon and your Device and the duration that your Device is near the beacon.”

Beacons can help campaigns by giving them insights into what kinds of people are attending which rallies, allowing them to cater messages to certain supporters. “You can, through beaconing, deliver micro-messages to individuals within that rally, and based off of the data that you glean from the device and the people who are physically in the venue, send a series of different types of messages to the individuals you want to interact with,” said Cyrus Krohn, who formerly served as the director of digital strategy for the Republican National Committee. (Krohn is also a former publisher of Slate.) For example, by using the data that an app has already collected about users, a campaign could potentially target messages to women attending a rally. A beacon could also let a campaign know when supporters are about to leave a rally and encourage them to head toward a voter registration station at the event.

Crowder insisted that Phunware’s ad-targeting platform is completely separate from the app that his company is building for Trump, and that users will be notified about the data it collects. “The Trump campaign is not leveraging Phunware’s Knowledge Graph (i.e., our data platform), so there is no connection to the other brands and users who touch our platform,” he said. “If you download the Trump app when released, then you will have the option to opt in and engage at your discretion. If you don’t download the Trump app, then nothing Phunware is doing with Trump right now will affect you.” By accepting the app’s terms of service, though, users will be agreeing to hand over personal data to the campaign. It won’t be clear what kind of personal info the app will request until it’s released.

Though the Trump app would only be able to collect the data of users who voluntarily download it, this sort of direct connection via app has its benefits. Serge Egelman, a research director at the University of California–Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, points out that the campaign wouldn’t have to buy location data collected through another third-party app if a supporter just downloads the official app. “It eliminates the middle man,” said Egelman. “If you just do it all yourself, that’s obviously a lot cheaper.”

Phunware’s apps typically collect location and phone usage data, but its executives say that this data is only available to the organization that commissioned the app. Crowder acknowledged that these organizations could look at aspects of users’ location histories—for example, frequency of visits to rallies or restaurants—to make certain inferences and tailor their outreach. But he claims that Phunware does not help its customers analyze the data in this way: “We’re not in that business. We give people a platform, and then what they do with it is their business.”

Depending on the terms of service and the permissions it asks for, data from the app could help the campaign monitor a range of offline activities even outside of rallies. “Just having installed the app to monitor behavior in the background enables a data scientist to glean insights around offline behaviors that could be informative to a political model,” said Krohn. “That model could be looking at how frequently a person is driving around parts of the geographic location where the campaign needs more support on the ground.” The app could also collect other things besides location data, such as the types of apps downloaded on a user’s phone, internet activity, and consumer habits.

So is all of this typical or creepy? Probably both. Using location data to reach possible voters has quickly become the new normal for organizations on both sides of the political spectrum. Campaigns and advocacy groups have taken advantage of various phone-tracking technologies to target people visiting places like Catholic churches, state party meetings, and even Planned Parenthood clinics. By finding new ways to enrich voter files with data like offline location histories, political operatives are becoming more and more adept at creating detailed profiles of potential supporters.

While Phunware executives were hesitant to tout what exactly their technology will do, they did want to brag about something else. Both Crowder and Lindenberger claimed that Phunware edged out the enterprise-tech giant Salesforce for the contract. “The reality is Salesforce was actively competing with us to build the Trump app despite [CEO Marc] Benioff’s obvious political leanings,” Crowder said. (Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and spoke openly about the need to defeat Trump at the time. Since then, though, he’s defended the company’s work for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol amid protests from his employees.)

Phunware CEO Alan Knitowski made a similar claim in a video that was posted to the company’s site in August—in which he also said the company had beat out Google in a different bid. Salesforce did not respond to multiple inquiries, and I could not independently verify that the company bid to build an app for the campaign. Either way, Phunware appears to share an enthusiasm with its client: stunting on Big Tech.