A meaty first report by the UK parliamentary committee that’s been running an inquiry into online disinformation since fall 2017, including scrutinizing how people’s personal information was harvested from social media services like Facebook and used for voter profiling and the targeting of campaign ads — and whose chair, Damian Collins — is a member of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, contains one curious omission.
Among the many issues the report raises are privacy concerns related to a campaign app developed by a company called uCampaign — which, much like the scandal-hit (and now seemingly defunct) Cambridge Analytica, worked for both the Ted Cruz for President and the Donald J Trump for President campaigns — although in its case it developed apps for campaigns to distribute to supporters to gamify digital campaigning via a tool which makes it easy for them to ‘socialize’ (i.e. share with contacts) campaign messaging and materials.
There have been data privacy concerns raised about another campaign tool used, but not developed, by AIQ [Aggregate IQ: Aka, a Canadian data firm which worked for Cambridge Analytica and which remains under investigation by privacy watchdogs in the UK, Canada and British Columbia]. A company called uCampaign has a mobile App that employs gamification strategy to political campaigns. Users can win points for campaign activity, like sending text messages and emails to their contacts and friends. The App was used in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and by Vote Leave during the Brexit Referendum.
The developer of the uCampaign app, Vladyslav Seryakov, is an Eastern Ukrainian military veteran who trained in computer programming at two elite Soviet universities in the late 1980s. The main investor in uCampaign is the American hedge fund magnate Sean Fieler, who is a close associate of the billionaire backer of SCL and Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer. An article published by Business Insider on 7 November 2016 states: “If users download the App and agree to share their address books, including phone numbers and emails, the App then shoots the data [to] a third-party vendor, which looks for matches to existing voter file information that could give clues as to what may motivate that specific voter. Thomas Peters, whose company uCampaign created Trump’s app, said the App is “going absolutely granular”, and will—with permission—send different A/B tested messages to users’ contacts based on existing information.”
What’s curious is that Collins’ Conservative Party also has a campaign app built by — you guessed it! — uCampaign, which the party launched in September 2017.
While there is nothing on the iOS and Android app store listings for the Conservative Campaigner app to identify uCampaign as its developer, if you go directly to uCampaign’s website the company lists the UK Conservative Party as one of it’s clients — alongside other rightwing political parties and organizations such as the (pro-gun) National Rife Association; the (anti-abortion) SBA List; and indeed the UK’s Vote Leave (Brexit) campaign, (the latter) as the DCMS report highlights.
uCampaign’s involvement as the developer of the Conservative Campaigner app was also confirmed to us (in June) by the (now former) deputy director & head of digital strategy for The Conservative Party, Anthony Hind, who — according to his LinkedIn profile — also headed up the party’s online marketing, between mid 2015 and, well, the middle of this month.
Here’s a screengrab of the exchange we had with Hind over LinkedIn — including his sole reply:
CAMPAIGNS YOU SUPPORT AND ALIGNED ORGANIZATIONS
We will share your Personal Information with third party campaigns selected by you via the Platform. In addition, we may share your Personal Information with other organizations, groups, causes, campaigns, political organizations, and our clients that we believe have similar viewpoints, principles or objectives as us.
We may share your Personal Information with other users of the Platform, for example if they connect their address book to our services, or if they invite you to use our services via the Platform.
We may share your Personal Information withother entities affiliated with us for internal reasons, primarily for business and operational purposes. uCampaign, or any of its assets, including the Platform, may be sold, or other transactions may occur in which your Personal Information is one of the business assets of the transaction. In such case, your Personal Information may be transferred.
Funnily enough, the Conservative Party appears to have tried to scrub out some of its own public links to uCampaign — such as changing link for the developer website on the app listing page for the Conservative Campaigner app to the Conservative Party’s own website (whereas before it linked through to uCampaign’s own website).
As the veteran UK satirical magazine Private Eye might well say — just fancy that!
One of the listed “features” of the Conservative Campaigner app urges Tory supporters to: “Invite your friends to join you on the app!”. If any did, their friends’ data would have been sucked up by uCampaign too to further causes of its choosing.
The version of the Campaigner app listed on Google Play is reported to have 1,000+ installs (iOS does not offer any download ranges for apps) — which, while not in itself a very large number, could represent exponentially larger amounts of personal data should users’ contacts have been synced with the app where they would have been harvested by uCampaign.
We did flag the link between uCampaign and the Conservative Campaigner app directly to Collins’ office, ahead of the publication of the DCMS report — writing on June 12:
The matter of concern here is that the Conservative party could itself be an unwitting a source of targeting data for rival political organizations, via an app that appears to offer almost no limits on what can be done with personal data.
That’s incredibly wide-ranging.
So every user’s phone book contacts (potentially hundreds of individuals per user) could have been passed to multiple unidentified organizations without people’s knowledge or consent. (Other uCampaign apps have been built for the NRA, and for anti-abortion organizations, for example.)
Even the current T&Cs allow for sharing with US suppliers.
Given the committee’s very public concerns about access to people’s data for political targeting purposes I am keen to know whether Mr Collins has any concerns about the use of uCampaign‘s app infrastructure by the Conservative party?
And also whether he is concerned about the lack of a robust data protection policy by his own party to ensure that valuable membership data is not simply passed around to unknown and unconnected entities — perhaps abroad, perhaps not — with zero regard for or accountability to the individuals in question.
Unfortunately this email (and a follow up) to the DCMS committee, asking for a response from Collins to our privacy concerns, went unanswered.
The wider Conservative Party
Business associates and professional advisers
Financial organisations – such as credit card payment providers
Healthcare and welfare organisations
Law enforcement agencies
The UK’s data watchdog recently found fault with pretty much all of the UK political parties’ when it comes to handling of voter data — saying it had sent warning letters to 11 political parties and also issued notices compelling them to agree to audits of their data protection practices.
Safe to say, it’s not just private companies that have been sticking their hand in the personal data cookie jar in recent years — the political establishment is facing plenty of awkward questions as regulators unpick where and how data has been flowing.
This is also not the only awkward story re: data privacy concerns related to a Tory political app. Earlier this year the then-minister in charge of the digital brief, Matt Hancock, launched a self-promotional, self-branded app intended for his constituents to keep up with news about Matt Hancock MP.
Of course the Matt Hancock App was a PR initiative of (and funded by) an individual Conservative MP — rather than a formal campaign tool paid for by the Conservative Party and intended for use by hundreds (or even thousands) of Party activists for use during election campaigns.
So while there are two issues of Tory-related privacy concern here, only one loops back to the Conservative Party political organization itself.
This report was updated with a correction that it was Collins’ office we contacted for comment on uCampaign in June, rather than the DCMS press office