Why Investigate Election Apps?

Looking at the tech behind political campaign apps, feat. The App Analyst

Part 1: Elections — There’s An App for That
Part 2: Why Investigate Election Apps?
Part 3: Campaign Apps Ghana 2020
Part 4: The National Resistance Movement App and Digital Politics in Uganda

“There’s an app for that” was a commonly used phrase during the time of the initial ascendance of the smart phone and tablet apps. The phrase carried with it both a celebration of this innovative approach to engaging with digital content and services, as well as low-level sarcasm about the ubiquity of apps that spanned nearly all conceivable use cases and purposes you could imagine; from digital finance to smart homes to flashlight apps to apps for your toaster. As the ‘appification’ of nearly every aspect of our lives continues, the realms of politics, elections and issue campaigning are equally engulfed by the promises and results that digital commercial marketing and its host of tools, such as mobile apps, has to offer.

As the ‘appification’ of nearly every aspect of our lives continues, the realms of politics, elections and issue campaigning are equally engulfed by the promises and results that digital commercial marketing […] has to offer.

From voter scoring, voter identification and outreach to digital campaign ads and data breaches — digital political campaigning and the poli-tech industry operate in close synchronisation with the commercial digital marketing industry. Research projects, such as Tactical Tech’s Inside the Influence Industry, have documented the increasing role that digital tools and strategies have on political and issue campaigning and how this is causing new or deepening existing challenges for formal democratic processes. Among the technologies that are growing in popularity among political entities across the globe are so-called campaign apps or party apps. A fuller description and analysis of campaign apps can be found here. In short, smartphone and/or tablet apps allow candidates and parties to engage with voters in a direct way, allowing for communication, calls to action and fundraising. They can also serve as data collection tools about the voters using them. Which voters seem to be particularly engaged with a candidate’s or campaign’s content? Are they sharing that content in their circles and raising awareness? Can more insights be gained about the voter demographic from their location, movements or other engagement with the app? Can these insights further be funneled into large voter databases maintained and coveted by political parties and their candidates?

Campaign apps have played a significant role in answering these questions and have been implemented across elections and referendums in North America and Europe by the full spectrum of political parties and candidates. Many of these apps have been well documented for how they engage with voters, what data they track and collect and how this data is used downstream in the overall strategy of a political campaign. As with any piece of technology, these apps are, however, also subject to 1) vulnerabilities, 2) poor technical execution or 3) developers and clients simply playing fast and loose with users’ data for short-term gains — or a combination of all three. These have been documented by researchers and journalists in high-profile elections, such as those in the United States over the past five years.

Various types of poli-tech and methods of data extraction have been used in many elections in the Global South and observed on six continents

While the focus of international media and research has a tendency to be focused on the Western / Global North context when it comes to discussions around digitisation of politics, Tactical Tech’s research into digital political campaigning has shown that various types of poli-tech and methods of data extraction have been used in many elections in the Global South and observed on six continents. Among the technologies used are campaign or political party apps that come to the forefront particularly during election seasons. If we know that campaign apps have a history of under-performing in terms of data security and can provide a front for voter data collection then we should expect these issues to be present in election apps in the Global South as well. We felt that there was a gap in existing coverage on this exact topic and decided to address it by conducting first-hand research that looks to shed light on this under-served issue. To be clear, this research is not intended to point fingers at particular countries, election contexts, parties or individuals. Instead, we want to highlight that poorly performing election- and politics-focused apps can be found across the globe.

We hope that this research will help to raise the conversational volume surrounding personal data, privacy and data security in digital election campaigning.

theappanalyst.com

For this part of the journey we are joined by The App Analyst, a fellow researcher and digital security specialist who has been dissecting apps, seeing how they function on the backend and disclosing vulnerabilities and questionable data practices across a number of apps from a range of industries and sectors. Recently, The App Analyst has taken apart both the Official Trump 2020 and Vote Joe apps and it is with their guidance that we have gone down the road of examining political apps used in elections across the world that have affected millions of people but rarely get the international or detailed coverage they deserve. Together, we will be investigating election apps in Ghana and Uganda used in their 2021 elections and highlighting 3rd party data collectors and trackers, poorly configured infrastructure, breach attempts and more. Join us as we take a deep dive into the technologies powering these apps, demystify how they work and make them accessible to readers outside of the realms of app development and information security.

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Part 1: Elections — There’s An App for That
Part 2: Why Investigate Election Apps?
Part 3: Campaign Apps Ghana 2020
Part 4: The National Resistance Movement App and Digital Politics in Uganda

Varoon Bashyakarla is a data scientist at Tactical Tech. His work explores the datafication of politics.

Gary Wright is a researcher at Tactical Tech, examining the uses of digital technologies in politics and their impacts on society.

The App Analyst is a digital security researcher with a specialty in auditing mobile apps for privacy and security vulnerabilities. Follow The App Analyst’s work here and here.

Tactical Tech is an international NGO that engages with citizens and civil-society organisations to explore and mitigate the impacts of technology on society.

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