Anti-abortion campaigns face privacy questions around app data sharing

22 May 2018

The referendum on the Eighth Amendment is just days away. Image: ra2studio/Shutterstock

An investigation into two apps used by the Irish referendum campaign for a No vote raises privacy concerns.

The Love Both project and Save the 8th campaigns are facing serious questions over the privacy of both of their apps, according to an in-depth report from BuzzFeed News.

Both groups are at the helm of the campaign to prevent the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution. The referendum on the issue is due to be held on 25 May, with voters all over the country taking to the polls to have their say.

Questions over data sharing

Future Human

The campaigning groups have both launched community apps to encourage their supporters to connect and organise against repealing the Eighth Amendment. Both apps were developed by Political Science Media LLC, a Washington DC-based firm that specialises in the creation of campaigning tools for conservative groups.

The company is run by Thomas Peters, a Catholic blogger. Love Both’s app is hosted by uCampaign, while a firm called Jarbik hosts the My8th app from Save the 8th – both firms are registered to Political Science Media.

Murky privacy policies

Privacy policies for both apps state that the personal data given over by users may be shared with campaigns selected by users from within the apps, but they also say that they “may share your personal information with other organisations, groups, causes, campaigns, political organisations, and our clients that we believe have similar viewpoints, principles or objectives as us”.

This opens the door to sharing this data with previous Political Science Media clients such as the NRA, the Trump presidential campaign and the Susan B Anthony List, a major US anti-abortion collective. BuzzFeed News asked the relevant parties if the data collected using the individual apps had been shared between the two campaigns or other organisations, but received no answers.

Those who want to use the apps are told to accept the privacy policies when downloading, but the link to the policies from within the apps brings you to a page that omits the paragraph on sharing data with “aligned organisations”.

Users must allow access to their contacts in order to perform the most rudimentary functions of the apps. Personal details such as names, emails, street addresses, phone numbers, images and geolocation information are among the data that can be shared. Both apps also contain analytics tracking code, which can be used to analyse granular demographic information and segment user behaviour.

Save the 8th and Love Both share a central Dublin address, but maintain that their campaigns to retain the Eighth Amendment are not connected.

Eighth Amendment campaign has been fraught

Digital interference has been a major talking point throughout the campaign, with major tech firms such as Facebook and Google enforcing rules around campaign advertising. While the apps themselves are used for those who want a No vote as opposed to converting the undecided, some of those people may not be aware of the potential behind their acceptance of the privacy policies.

Liz Carolan, co-founder of the Transparent Referendum Initiative, told “This story shows us once again the need for full transparency in political campaign activity, especially when it is taking place online. We need to be able to follow the money to see what products and services are being deployed against Irish voters, and we need to know what technology is being used, to be able to build regulations that keep our elections open, honest and fair.”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects