Company Tracks Iowa Caucusgoers by their Cell Phones
It’s not just governments. Companies like Dstillery are doing this too:
“We watched each of the caucus locations for each party and we collected mobile device ID’s,” Dstillery CEO Tom Phillips said. “It’s a combination of data from the phone and data from other digital devices.”
Dstillery found some interesting things about voters. For one, people who loved to grill or work on their lawns overwhelmingly voted for Trump in Iowa, according to Phillips. There was some pretty unexpected characteristics that came up too.
“NASCAR was the one outlier, for Trump and Clinton,” Phillips said. “In Clinton’s counties, NASCAR way over-indexed.”
Kashmir Hill wondered how:
What really happened is that Dstillery gets information from people’s phones via ad networks. When you open an app or look at a browser page, there’s a very fast auction that happens where different advertisers bid to get to show you an ad. Their bid is based on how valuable they think you are, and to decide that, your phone sends them information about you, including, in many cases, an identifying code (that they’ve built a profile around) and your location information, down to your latitude and longitude.
Yes, for the vast majority of people, ad networks are doing far more information collection about them than the NSA—but they don’t explicitly link it to their names.
So on the night of the Iowa caucus, Dstillery flagged all the auctions that took place on phones in latitudes and longitudes near caucus locations. It wound up spotting 16,000 devices on caucus night, as those people had granted location privileges to the apps or devices that served them ads. It captured those mobile ID’s and then looked up the characteristics associated with those IDs in order to make observations about the kind of people that went to Republican caucus locations (young parents) versus Democrat caucus locations. It drilled down farther (e.g., ‘people who like NASCAR voted for Trump and Clinton’) by looking at which candidate won at a particular caucus location.
Okay, so it didn’t collect names. But how much harder could that have been?