How Political Groups Spy On You Via Your Smartphone


One of the day-to-day realities of modern life is targeted advertising. You look up a movie in theaters, and ads for it turn up on your Facebook feed. Sometimes it becomes absurd, like the man who jokingly shared a gigantic vat of personal lubricant and was turned into its unwilling spokesman. But increasingly, advertising technology has a darker side, where your phone can throw you in the center of a political battle whether you want to be there or not.

How Smartphones Make Us Political Targets

Rewire recently explored the technology of Copley Advertising, a Boston-area technology company that developed a campaign to target women who might be considering an abortion. Flynn claims to be able to pull a shocking amount of data from phones, ranging from most commonly visited locations such as workplace and home to pet ownership to which brand of car the person he’s catering to drives.

How does Copley know women are considering an abortion? It uses a common technology called “geo-fencing,” which only triggers ads when a phone is in a certain location. Geo-fencing is incredibly common and generally used for hyperlocal advertising, but any advertiser can do it for any reason. And political campaigns are using more and more complex data-gathering tools to form profiles of likely voters, without asking for their permission. Ted Cruz’s campaign, for example, got in trouble for an app that harvested not just the Facebook profiles of users, but also their friends.

In theory, this data is anonymous, but with enough data and legwork, anyone can determine a person’s identity, especially if a researcher knows where that person works or lives. In fact, the simplest way to get somebody’s data is to ask them for it; in the guise of a contest unrelated to a political cause or a request to send more information, a request for a name and address can be paired with an advertising profile. And with access to voter databases, your complete identity (more or less) can be handed out to any political operative who wants it.

Why Is This Legal?

This may leave smartphone users wondering why this is even allowed in the first place. And the answer is that in the modern tech industry, if there’s no law against it, then it must also be morally right. Legally speaking, there’s no difference, at the moment, between a billboard and an app selling your every move to anybody who wants it.

Unfortunately, companies like Google have a long history of failing to consider the full implications of the products they roll out. For example, in 2010, Google rolled out a Twitter competitor called Google Buzz that it forcibly enrolled the entirety of Gmail in, and which quickly became one of the company’s biggest disasters. Among other problems, it made your entire Gmail contact list public, it put your email address on public display, pulled pictures from user’s phones without permission, and forced users to opt out of GPS tracking.

It’s a problem that filters all the way down. The widely reviled app Peeple, which literally lets you review and rate other human beings as if they were consumer products, was created by executives who were hoping to forcibly enroll everyone on Facebook into the app. In fact, the company forced YouTube to take down a video of Peeple’s CEO complaining about how they couldn’t do exactly that.

How Can We Protect Ourselves?

The good news is that even if consent is implied as given, you can take that consent away. If you’re concerned, disable your phone’s GPS, something all smartphones allow with a few taps. Before downloading any app, especially a free app, look closely at the privacy settings. Apple and Google require apps to disclose what information they collect before you download, and make a point of looking at the privacy settings of apps you might have already put on your phone.

Beyond that, treat interacting online as if you were talking in person. You wouldn’t hand a total stranger your name and address, right? So why do it on the internet? We’re only political targets if we volunteer to be, and we’ve got the tools to say no.