Four years after the Cambridge Analytica revelations, the US elections again see widespread data scraping and user tracking.
Rabat – The applications for the main US presidential election campaigns are using nefarious methods to monitor users and collect voter data. Security blog The App Analyst reported on the Vote Joe app and the Official Trump 2020 App, revealing that both are designed to harvest user data.
The apps that the Republican and Democratic parties developed actively aim to collect data on those who use them and every person in their contact list. The Times of Israel alleges that the campaigns are using this data to send unsolicited material to unsuspecting users.
The Vote Joe app
The Democratic party has produced the “Vote Joe” app in support of its presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden. App stores describe it as “an organizing tool that allows you to reach out to your friends.” Yet The App Analyst’s analysis shows that it deploys problematic methods for doing so.
The Vote Joe app requires users to sign up with an unverified email and a US address. Once registered, the app lets users send Biden-themed campaign messages and asks users to provide data on their family and friends.
It also allows users to share their phone’s contact list directly with the app. Then the Biden campaign can reach out to these contacts. Anyone who signs up gets access to the data of 191 million voters collected in a database that political data firm Target Smart manages.
“We’ll let you know which of your friends and family members could use that extra touch to help make sure they vote in 2020,” the app promises users prior to downloading. The program aims to do this by asking its users to provide information on their social network. Users can add information in the database, indicating the jobs and interests of their family and friends.
Once the app knows more details on the user’s family and friends, the campaign then can use this data to send targeted ads and campaign messaging to unsuspecting voters. Yet the data that the app collects appears to be poorly guarded. The voter database allows people to see unverified and unapproved data on citizens’ past voting behavior and their current political inclination.
The Official Trump 2020 App
While the Vote Joe app has problematic voter data collection methods, the Republican party’s official app goes even further. Republicans developed the Official Trump 2020 App to increase campaign support and collect data on potential voters. The App Analyst reported that the app has several security issues and has far-reaching user tracking.
MIT Technology Review called the Trump app a “voter surveillance tool of extraordinary power.” The review showed that both election apps capture voter data. Yet the reviewers found that Trump’s app can record users’ identity, location and take control of their device’s bluetooth functionality.
US President Trump has publicly criticized the popular social media app TikTok for its user tracking, yet his campaign’s app appears to apply similar tracking methods.
The app actively turns election activity into a “game” for Trump supporters. Users of the Official Trump 2020 App can gain points which a public leaderboard displays. The Trump supporters who use the app can donate to the campaign in exchange for 10 points. When users refer friends who in turn install the app, they gain 100 points.
The distribution of points shows the importance of gathering data in this election cycle. Users are motivated by the app’s game structure to spread its usage and earn rewards such as the red “make america great again” hats and other campaign-branded merchandise.
The App Analyst stated that both apps have likely reduced their problematic methods since coverage emerged on their problematic security aspects. Whether they have actually done so remains unknown, yet an investigation by the Times of Israel claims the campaigns use the apps’ data are used to pepper unsuspecting voters with influential messaging.
The data collection methods that both apps employ appears to have resulted in widespread misinformation campaigns. The campaigns use data to send potential voters a variety of messages, ranging from tailored campaign slogans to active misinformation aimed at voter suppression.
The messages include statements such as “your early vote has not been recorded,” according to the Times of Israel. Information such as employment, shopping behavior, and even church attendance leads to ever-more specifically tailored messages.
The Times interviewed Thomas, a Boston software manager who received dozens of unsolicited texts. Despite not signing up with any pro-Trump entities he started recieving messages saying “Looting. Rioting. Burning Cities. These are the realities of a Biden America.”
Even as the US government has warned of malicious user tracking by apps such as WeChat and TikTok, both presidential campaigns appear to be leveraging similar problematic data invasion. With three weeks remaining until election day, little can be done to stop this trend. The consequences will only be clear once Americans have cast their ballots.