A P2P mobile app developed by a Ukrainian military veteran and funded by American hedge fund magnate and close associate of Cambridge Analytica backer, Robert Mercer, has been rebranded and repurposed to serve as a contact tracing tool in the “fight” against the COVID-19 pandemic and public safety emergencies, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters.
The rollout happens at a time when ‘health-related’ data-collection technology, such as this and other apps, is sparsely regulated and when the country is undergoing an unprecedented health crisis, effectively railroading the public into mass adoption of digital products created by companies with questionable track records.
uCampaign, as the original app was called, had been built for Donald Trump’s 2016 successful run for the presidency. It brought in “more results and had a bigger impact than Clinton’s smartphone app, and for far less cost to the campaign,” according to Thomas Peters, founder of the company which developed the app. Peters parlayed his success into contracts with the NRA, Ted Cruz’s own presidential campaign, and Brexit.
But it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 when Peters became aware of the P2P messaging app used by the Bernie Sanders campaign and developed by an Obama campaign strategist called Hustle, that he decided to re-tool uCampaign and apply the lessons learned through peer-to-peer communication technologies in order to “perfect” the Democrat’s innovation.
The new app, called RumbleUp, has now been accepted into the “FirstNet App Catalog,” a library of “secure applications that can be used by more than 12,000 public safety agencies” which enables first responders “to directly text people on the ground in support of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing efforts”.
Cambridge Analytica Redux
Privacy concerns have been raised by the British parliamentary committee, which looked into the Cambridge Analytica “Facebook scandal” in its “Disinformation and ‘fake news’ report” and mentions uCampaign’s very “‘liberal’ attitude to sharing the personal data of app users.” The app was utilized by the Trump campaign to go “absolutely granular,” in the words of uCampaign founder Peters. “If users download the App and agree to share their address books, including phone numbers and emails”, stated a Business Insiderarticle from 2016, “the App then shoots the data [to] a third-party vendor, which looks for matches to existing voter file information.”
RumbleUp, the next-generation version of uCampaign, enjoys the advantages of all such P2P technologies in that FCC regulations have yet to catch up to modern times. The 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act fails to account for smartphones and because of the nature of P2P messaging, opt-in consent requirements that govern activities like auto-dialers do not apply.
All data collected will also be provided to “third parties to perform functions on our behalf,” of which they cite only a few examples.
Peters says that the “spark behind the company’s work to join the FirstNet application catalog” was motivated by Hurricane Michael, which devastated parts of the Florida panhandle in 2018. He “swiftly” partnered up with the Florida GOP to text over 70,000 displaced individuals in the aftermath of the storm. The information gathered was shared with FEMA and other local relief organizations, but also took advantage of the situation to extend “assistance filling out absentee ballots” and other voting-related help, which Peters claims resulted in a 10 percent increase in voter participation.
It was at this point that Peters’ company began talks with FirstNet to be included in the list of “approved” mobile tools for first responders. FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority) was authorized by Congress in 2012 as an independent authority within the Department of Commerce, that is currently run by billionaire investor, Wilbur Ross. The network was built through a public-private partnership with AT&T and includes more than 100 products that cover everything from “dispatch functions, internet of things, drone and body-worn camera solutions, emergency medical and telehealth capabilities”, as well as tools to manage and collect the information.
Given the fact that there is still no regulatory framework that covers P2P communications or many of the new technologies being aggregated under this recently-created agency, apps like RumbleUp and their direct ties to political power is enough to be concerned about. It is especially concerning, however, that these unregulated technologies are being rolled out on a national level under the guise of public safety in the midst of a pandemic – using fear to facilitate adoption and delaying any limitations on corporate power until the system is firmly in place.
Feature photo | A counter-protester wearing a hat that reads “Trump 2020” uses a mobile phone to take photos as others take part in a protest against family separation at the border and other immigration-related issues, Aug. 1, 2019, outside ICE headquarters in Seattle. Ted S. Warren | AP