The Trump Campaign Is Deploying Phone Location-Tracking Technology

Phunware obtains location and user data to infer “gender, age, lifestyle preferences” of potential voters.

People in the audience use mobile phones to record Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, behind, as he addresses an audience during a campaign rally, Monday, April 25, 2016, in Warwick, R.I. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
People in the audience use mobile phones to record Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, behind, as he addresses an audience during a campaign rally, April 25, 2016, in Warwick, R.I. Photo: Steven Senne/AP

President Donald Trump’s reelection effort has retained the services of a technology company that specializes in the mass collection of smartphone location data, which can be used to track voters for political targeting purposes.

Phunware, an Austin, Texas-based firm, announced the connection in a little-noticed press release in October, touting “new and existing customer wins including American Made Media Consultants,” the consulting firm set up this year by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale to handle advertising services for a variety of official Trump reelection PACs. The release noted that the deal was signed in conjunction with the Trump-Pence 2020 reelection effort.

A growing subset of advertising firms rely on data brokers that use third-party apps — from popular mobile games to apps used for checking the weather, perfecting a selfie, and online banking — to harvest vast troves of information about potential voters. Phunware, in a section of its website, discusses the company’s ability to obtain GPS location data and the Wi-Fi network used by an individual, as well as user data that can infer an “individual’s gender, age, lifestyle preferences” — potential tools for identifying and influencing voters.

The company claims to offer a wide range of services based on user location data. Individuals who attend a political rally or protest can be identified as potential targets for ads, a technique known as geofencing. Location data can provide insights into how long a shopper spends at a particular clothing store, type of religious venues, or the night clubs they tend to frequent.

“Unfortunately Phunware does not comment on customer-specific data or information,” wrote Brent Brightwell, a spokesperson for Phunware, when contacted about the company’s work with Trump campaign. “Please contact the Trump reelection campaign directly should you have any questions about their activities or efforts.” The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, deleted scenes from the documentary “The Brink” revealed that Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, had used similar location-tracking technology services to target church-attending Catholics during the midterm elections.

“If your phone’s ever been in a Catholic church, it’s amazing, they got this data,” Bannon said in the film clip. “Literally, they can tell who’s been in a Catholic church and how frequently,” he added. “And they got it triaged.”

Though the Trump campaign’s use of this particular data broker has received little attention, Phunware was featured in a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal, published in October, into the use of location tracking by political interests. Federal Election Commission records show both Democratic and Republican congressional campaigns in Texas last year retained Phunware. Kimberly Taylor, a Democratic strategist, told the Journal that she used the firm to find attendees who went to the Women’s March as potential voters to help unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The story noted an independent pro-Trump group had also used location-tracking services.

The payments to Phunware by the Trump campaign do not appear in FEC records because the firm serves as a subcontractor to American Made Media Consultants, the Trump media-buying company. American Made Media Consultants has been paid more than $11.7 million by the Donald J. Trump for President, Trump Make America Great Again, and Republican National Committee this year, according to FEC records.

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