Elections — There’s An App for That

Tactical Tech
Jan 19 · 5 min read

by Varoon Bashyakarla

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

Retailers, gyms, theaters, places of worship, dating services, restaurants, and public transit aren’t the only services rolling out apps nowadays. Politicians and political groups are as well. Apps provide supporters, especially during the pandemic, a virtual space to congregate, to express their support for a candidate or party, to share election moments, and to make their voices heard. Sometimes, they incorporate elements of gamification and community-building, which help turn otherwise casual supporters into enthusiasts. However, like many of the other technologies employed by political campaigns, campaign apps can be invasive with respect to the voter data they collect and use for political purposes.

A screenshot of the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s website promoting its app. South Africa held a by-election on 9 December 2020. Source

Tactical Tech’s Data & Politics Team has identified political apps in Australia, Canada, France, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and more. Political apps are not new. Eight years ago in the Dominican Republic, 2012 presidential candidate (and eventual president) Danilo Medina released an app made by the company uCampaign, which also made Donald Trump’s 2016 official campaign app, 2018 Costa Rican presidential candidate Rodolfo Piza Rocafort’s app, and a variety of other right-wing political issues and causes — including the official National Rifle Association App in the United States — spanning 9 languages and 12 countries. These apps are only one type of app revolutionizing politics. Apps are also used for streamlining door-to-door canvassing, allowing volunteers and campaigns on the street to seamlessly relay information to their campaign’s trove of voter data, and for mobilizing voters through political games.

Apps released by political candidates and campaigns often collect data just like everyday consumer apps do, and although they might store sensitive political information, they tend to fall short of top-notch security and privacy standards. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official campaign app requested access to voters’ location, photographs, contacts, camera, and microphone. In the United States, where political campaign funds abound, presidential campaigns apps have been riddled with security problems. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign app, for example, suffered from a security lapse that could have exposed its users to eavesdropping by hackers. More recently, the Trump 2020 app was found to have offloaded logs about users’ activity to the company Phunware. According to a former Phunware executive, the company’s pitch to political clients, like the Trump campaign, featured their ability to effectively recreate functionality that enabled Cambridge Analytica to collect voter’s personal data en masse. The former executive said of the Trump app, “They want access to everything. The ability to aggregate all of the different data points that one can collect from a mobile device from a geolocation perspective: where you live, where you work, where you shop.”

The Joe Biden App suffered from data leakage issues in which users could access data about other voters’ participation in past elections in the app itself, with far more information transmitted through the app’s server. Additionally, when users granted the app permission to access their contacts, the campaign’s voter database is enriched with the new contact data and shared with the company Target Smart, which in turn provides analytics to the app’s dashboards and might even resell the data to private companies or political groups with an interest in acquiring it.

This image from The App Analyst shows the data leakage issues in the official Joe Biden app. App users could look up other voters and see in which elections they had participated. Server-side, far more information was available, including information about the voter’s party and what appear to be fields designating what party they are believed to have voted for in past elections. Source

While increasing numbers of political groups and causes are releasing campaign apps in order to engage voters, the effects of these apps may vary from place to place. The official Trump 2020 app, which has remained active post-election, for instance, has over 500,000 installs on Android. Voters in South Africa, on the other hand, seem less eager to download campaign apps. One study found that “South African voters felt that mobile political campaigns were intrusive, violated their privacy and made them feel disillusioned with the political process.”

“Voting Together” was a feature launched a few weeks before the 2017 Moscow Municipal elections in Russia. The ad above says “You can find love anywhere — even during the elections.” Users go through other users’ profiles and answer questions like “”Would you go to vote with her (him)?” If two users match, they both receive a message saying, “It looks like we like each other. We can go to vote together on 10 September.” From then, they could message one another and find a mutually convenient voting location. The dating service, Mamba, had been “advised” to build the tool. Original interviews suggest the initiative was the brainchild of the Kremlin, whose intention was an “initiative aimed at boosting voter turnout at the regional and presidential polls”. Source

To better understand how political campaign apps around the world use voter data, Tactical Tech’s Data & Politics team has teamed up with The App Analyst and with local partners around the world to select and to study apps of interest.

If you would like to nominate an app for analysis, please email varoon@tacticaltech.org (PGP Fingerprint: FC04 3DF0 FCA2 FC8C FDCB F29B 7701 3B1A 8FE9 630C) or to gary@tacticaltech.org (PGP Fingerprint: AC98 ACF8 5A3D 076B BC4E B53B 887B 2745 A2EC 33F3) with a short description of who you are and why the app(s) you are suggesting are of interest.

If the app is in a language other than English, please note whether you or someone you know might be willing to help translate if your app is selected for analysis. Alternatively, if you are a security researcher and would like to get involved, please reach out using the same email address above and share with us some information about your technical background.

The Data & Politics Team will publish its findings on its project website — Our Data, Our Politics —in the spring of 2021.

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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 and researcher at Tactical Tech. His past statistical undertakings led him to a variety of domains: public health, public safety, sports, finance, and cybersecurity. After working as a data scientist in Silicon Valley, he has spent the last several years in Berlin exploring how personal data is being used for political influence.

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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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