Inaugural Smartphone App Could Be Helping Mine Data For Democrats

The Presidential Inaugural Committee released a smart phone app this week to help people follow inaugural events in real time. It has maps of the parade route, volunteer opportunities and real-time updates. It also has an invisible feature — the app could be mining data for Democrats.

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And we have some tech news now to mark today's inauguration. The Presidential Inaugural Committee recently released a smartphone app to help people follow the day's events in real time. It has maps of the parade route, volunteer opportunities and real-time updates. As NPR's Brenda Salinas reports, it also has an invisible feature that could help Democrats mine data from users.

BRENDA SALINAS, BYLINE: It's the first app you see when you open the iTunes store: Inauguration 2013. The welcome page asks for your phone number. Below that, a link to terms and services. You can skip both and go straight to the features.

JUSTIN BROOKMAN: It's actually a really good-looking app. I mean, it does seem useful.

SALINAS: That's Jason Brookman. He's a director of consumer privacy for the nonprofit Center of Democracy and Technology. He likes the app's features but not its terms of service. That link - the one most users probably ignore - takes you to a document on the committee's website, and it's the website that opens up a loophole for Brookman. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We misidentified the director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Consumer Privacy. He is Justin Brookman.]

BROOKMAN: So it says, you know, we may collect email addresses and cell phone data and, you know, your location information, and we reserve the right to sell that to or give it to other candidates and to use it in, you know, ways that you might not necessarily expect when you're just trying to install an application to, you know, to figure out where to go on Inauguration Day.

SALINAS: The Presidential Inaugural Committee would not comment publicly, but it did defend its app in a statement, saying it had no way to collect emails, names or other personal information. It also defended the terms of service on its website, saying it's appropriate for a president's inaugural committee to support and reflect their party's ideals and causes. And that's a problem, says Brookman. The app links to services like Facebook, Twitter and its own website where the rules aren't so clear.

BROOKMAN: If you go to a different service, the privacy policy does reserve pretty broad rights to do lots of stuff with that.

SALINAS: Stuff that's catching the attention of both parties. Dan Morgan is a GOP fundraising consultant. While he doesn't like the idea of data-mining apps, he says we'll be seeing more of them, from Democrats and Republicans.

DAN MORGAN: We're a pack of dogs in this business. Whatever one does, the other one wants to quickly follow. And I can guarantee Republicans are out there looking at what the Democrats are doing and saying: Hey, how do we do the same thing?

SALINAS: Morgan predicts a future where political groups mine more data than Google. Campaigns will make special apps for town halls and public appearances, and then the data will be mined for fundraising. To him, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Brenda Salinas, NPR News.

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Correction July 8, 2013

We misidentified the director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Consumer Privacy. He is Justin Brookman.



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