How the Trump Campaign's Mobile App Is Collecting Massive Amounts of Voter Data - 2020-09-13
Since the Trump campaign set up a shell company called American Made Media Consultants, in 2018, an entity it describes as a "vendor responsible for arranging and executing media buys and related services at fair market value," it's been nearly impossible to know whom the campaign is paying, for what, and how much. But, on May 27th, Alan Knitowski, the C.E.O. of Phunware, an Austin-based ad broker and software company, announced a "strategic relationship with American Made Media Consultants on the development, launch and ongoing management and evolution of the Trump-Pence 2020 Reelection Campaign's mobile application portfolio." Although Phunware never showed up in the campaign's F.E.C. reports, Phunware's S.E.C. filings show that, since last year, it has been paid around four million dollars by A.M.M.C.
On its face, Phunware seems like a strange choice to develop the campaign's app. Before working for President Trump, Phunware's software was being used in relatively few applications, the most popular being a horoscope app. And, since 2019, it has been embroiled in a lawsuit with Uber, a former client of the company's ad-placement business. The dispute stems from a yearlong investigation by two former Phunware employees who discovered that the company was pretending to place Uber ads on Web sites like CNN when, in fact, they were appearing on pornography sites, among others, if they appeared at all. But, according to former Phunware employees and business associates, the company's value to the Trump campaign is not in software development. "The Trump campaign is not paying Phunware four million dollars for an app," a former business partner of the company told me. "They are paying for data. They are paying for targeted advertising services. Imagine if every time I open my phone I see a campaign message that Joe Biden's America means we're going to have war in the streets. That's the service the Trump campaign and Brad Parscale"—the Trump campaign's senior adviser for data and digital operations—"have bought from Phunware. An app is just part of the package."
The Trump 2020 app is a massive data-collection tool in its own right. When it launched, on April 23rd, Parscale, who was then Trump's campaign manager, urged his followers on Facebook to "download the groundbreaking Official Trump 2020 App—unlike other lame political apps you've seen." Despite the hype, the 2020 app recapitulates many of the functions found on the 2016 app. There's a news feed with Trump's social-media posts, an events calendar, and recorded videos. The "gaming" features that distinguished the 2016 app are still prominent—a "Trump's army" member who accumulates a hundred thousand points by sharing contacts or raising money is promised a photograph with the President, while other members can use points to get discounts on MAGA gear. Users are prompted to invite friends to download the app—more points!—and can use the app to sign up to make calls on behalf of the campaign, to be a poll watcher, to register voters, and to get tickets to virtual and in-person events.