Location-Tracking Firm Helping Trump Get Reelected Now Wants to Cash In on Coronavirus

Phunware wants to sell social-distancing enforcement while serving the president who bungled the response to Covid-19.

Photo Illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept; Getty Images

A smartphone tracking firm helping Donald Trump clinch his 2020 presidential reelection recently told investors it’s identified a promising new profit opportunity: the global coronavirus pandemic.

Phunware is part of a vast galaxy of obscure advertising technology companies that help clients follow and target their customers — to “capitalize on users’ daily digital trail,” as Phunware’s site puts it. By embedding Phunware code in their app, a developer can easily glean detailed records of where a user goes and what they do, creating a rich behavioral history to sell on to others.


Watch: Are We Vesting Too Much Power in Governments and Corporations in the Name of Covid-19? With Edward Snowden.

Last year, The Intercept reported that Phunware had signed to work with American Made Media Consultants, a political consultancy founded by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale that functioned as the campaign’s highly effective digital media branch.In June of last year, Phunware announced it had appointed to the company’s board Brittany Kaiser, a former executive and self-described “whistleblower” from Cambridge Analytica, the company that infamously abused its access to personal Facebook data to aid Trump’s 2016 victory. A group associated with Kaiser later denied she ever officially joined the board.

Although Phunware hasn’t publicized the details of the services it’s providing to Trump’s reelection effort, the impressive and potentially invasive technical capabilities it possesses are well documented, both on its website and in press reports. “Beyond identifying coveted voters, mobile data can also be used to define ad targeting parameters with incredible accuracy,” reads a section of Phunware’s site that compares the buying and selling of personal data to the 1849 Gold Rush. In October 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Phunware had helped a Democratic political strategist target voters whose phones had been tracked to the 2017 anti-Trump Women’s March. The company’s privacy policy grants the company license to use personal data for essentially whatever purposes it deems necessary for however long it deems necessary.

Phunware did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

Now, at exactly the same time as Trump has repeatedly undermined public health guidelines and overseen a generally botched federal response to Covid-19, Phunware hopes to cash in on the need to enforce pandemic measures like social distancing. In a March 30 call with investors, Phunware co-founder and CEO Alan Knitowski explained that the company was “aggressively pursuing new business opportunities … including remote telehealth and telemedicine triage for health care patient capacity management, virtual rallies for political advocacy during a presidential election year, remote work optimization for corporate campuses and social distance policy enforcement, engagement and asset-tracking for smart cities and government organizations at the local, state, and federal level.”

Phunware  is “aggressively pursuing social distance policy enforcement” and “telemedicine triage.”

Phunware COO Randall Crowder elaborated on the call that the company’s “digital front door for mobile can enable everything from dynamic social distancing policy enforcement to patient capacity utilization optimization to seamless integrations with electronic health records (EHR), telehealth, telemedicine and facility management platforms.” The company is also well-positioned to profit from the suspension of local lockdown orders, said Crowder: “Our state-of-the-art mobile campus experience will help employers better manage their employees as they return to the office with push notifications, messaging, dynamic routing, wayfinding, occupancy monitoring, route tracking, interaction tracking, health status tracking, and access control.”

In an interview broadcasted two days after the Phunware investor call, CEO Knitowski explained that the company could utilize geofencing technology — the same method used to target potential voters — for “social distancing policy enforcement.” Geofencing allows apps (and the companies who peddle them) to draw virtual boundaries across a map and keep tabs on who comes in and out by tracking a phone’s position using a combination of cellular towers and GPS pings.

The technique is an obvious boon to marketers who might want to hone in on, say, people who’ve stopped by car dealerships in recent weeks or avid Taco Bell patrons. Now geofencing has found new fans in the public health sphere, with virtual boxes now being drawn around quarantined patients in places like India and Hong Kong; should they decide to break quarantine and leap the geofence, authorities will receive an alert.

But while the average smartphone is bristling with enough always-on sensors to enable invasive advertising methods, it’s unclear if these locational records are precise enough for medical purposes: Last month, Reuters reported that Israeli defense minister Naftali Bennett “said the cellphone tracking and geolocation data currently being used were no longer effective in finding the most likely [coronavirus] carriers.”

Indeed, while “social distancing” guidelines call for a 6-foot radius between persons to prevent coronavirus transmission, a smartphone’s GPS capabilities are only accurate to about 16 feet — much worse if the person holding it is in or around buildings. This accuracy can be improved by looking for known nearby Wi-Fi hotspots, and in a 2019 patent, Phunware claimed it had developed a software algorithm that could provide highly accurate tracking using typically inaccurate cellphone towers. But there’s reason to be skeptical of this entire industry’s claims to locational accuracy, according to privacy researcher Wolfie Christl: These companies have never really cared about precision before. “Location data collected from smartphone apps without the users’ knowledge is, in many cases, not just flawed and biased, but even fraudulent,” explained Christl. “Mobile data brokers, who claim to have data on the movements of everyone, are mostly overselling their capabilities. They use untrustworthy data sources and look the other way.”

As the American Civil Liberties Union’s Jennifer Granick explained via email, ad tech companies have also never had to deal with high stakes or real accountability, and the pivot from invasive marketing to epidemiology is fraught. “You can’t just repurpose information for any cause,” said Granick. “For example, ad companies traditionally don’t have to worry about accuracy. If they mess up, someone sees an ad that they aren’t interested in. But when we are talking public health, potential law enforcement, and employment, these companies’ mistakes can be catastrophic.”

Phunware’s pivot, from gleaning data for political advertising to pitching enhanced surveillance, reflects a broad trend among the ad tech industry. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House coronavirus task force has met with tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, as well as a number of startups, to develop tech tracking solutions for the coronavirus pandemic. “If we’re to leverage commercial technology to save lives, how do we put in the policy framework so we’re not South Korea or China or Israel?” Ian Allen, the chief executive of Camber Systems, a Washington, D.C.-based startup that develops location-tracking services, told the Journal. Verint Systems, a New York-based data analysis company, similarly announced that the company would sell new solutions for “detecting and alerting upon illegal clusters of people” using geolocation technology.

A product guide posted on the Verint website shows how police agencies can use technology to enforce movement limitations. Police officers, the memo notes, can’t be “deployed at every street corner in every city.” But geolocation from mobile phones can be used to “generate relevant alerts and perform epidemiological investigations” of people violating quarantine measures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are among existing Verint clients.

“Some of our law enforcement agencies are responsible for the Covid-19 enforcement, and clearly there are people that are ordered to be under quarantine and they don’t respond, and it’s very important to protect the public safety to make those quarantine enforced,” said Dan Bodner, the chief executive of Verint, during a March 31 call with investors. The company’s “facial recognition” products, he added, can help “make sure that people are basically quarantined at home and adhering to the requirements.”

Join The Conversation