Advertisement

Catholics in Iowa went to church. Steve Bannon tracked their phones.

Campaigns have been using cell-phone location data for years. Did Bannon take it too far?

Former senior White House aide Steve Bannon. CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress
Former senior White House aide Steve Bannon. CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ThinkProgress

Steve Bannon and the conservative group CatholicVote used cell-phone location data for people who had been inside Roman Catholic churches in Dubuque, Iowa, in 2018 to target them with get-out-the-vote ads, ThinkProgress has learned.

Bannon, a former senior White House aide, made the claim in a deleted scene from the new documentary about him, The Brink. This scene has not been previously published.

“If your phone’s ever been in a Catholic church, it’s amazing, they got this data,” Bannon told director Alison Klayman as they sat in his Washington, D.C., home on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections.

“Literally, they can tell who’s been in a Catholic church and how frequently,” Bannon added. “And they got it triaged.”

Bannon did not respond to multiple phone calls and text messages seeking comment.

In response to a detailed list of questions from ThinkProgress, CatholicVote’s office manager, Kathleen Storen, said that the kind of data collection the group used “does not allow you to collect personal information.”

Advertisement

I encourage you to do some more due diligence on how geo-targeted marketing is being utilized by companies everywhere, including organizations (and many campaigns),” Storen said in the email. “Finally, we are not interested in commenting further on this story.”

CatholicVote would not say more about how the group collected and used data in 2018.

The technology Bannon was alluding to is called “geofencing” or “ring-fencing.” It’s become popular over the last several years with advertisers, campaigns, and advocacy groups that want to find people who may be receptive to their message.

When Klayman asked Bannon, on-camera, where he got his data from, he answered, simply, “the phone companies.”

“And the data guys sell it,” Bannon added.

The data used in geofencing is anonymized. But privacy advocates have been sounding the alarm, saying that geofencing and other ways that companies collect and sell cell-phone location data have the potential to reveal personal information about individual phone users.

Some critics say geofencing churches, in particular, takes the technology too far.

“This is terribly disturbing. This is like a total infringement on everybody,” said Sister Gwen Hennessey, a Franciscan sister and longtime social justice activist in Dubuque.

Advertisement

“I have not used it to target religious groups specifically, and I will say that, for me, morally that seems like a step too far,” said one executive at an advertising firm that regularly uses geofencing, who asked not to be named. “But it doesn’t surprise me.”

CatholicVote planned to use the data to send targeted get-out-the-vote ads on election day telling Catholics that it was their duty “to support President Trump,” according to Bannon.

It’s not clear whether those ads ever went out. If they did, the results were mixed. The next day, Democrat Abby Finkenauer beat out Republican incumbent Rod Blum by 51% to 45.9%, while Republican Kim Reynolds held on to the governor’s mansion.

But the Dubuque election was just one battle in a larger war. Bannon, a cradle Catholic, has worked to shift the political landscape inside and outside the church, wooing Catholics to his brand of right-wing populism and making common cause with prominent Catholics who oppose the relatively progressive reign of Pope Francis.

Conservative activists working to attract Catholic votes is nothing new, according John Gehring, the Catholic program director at the progressive advocacy group Faith in Public Life. But the tactics have changed.

Advertisement

“Catholic activists on the right have worked closely with GOP operatives and campaigns to micro target voters for several decades,” Gehring said. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, he said, they would find ways to get parish directories.

“The political strategy to reach Catholics is clearly more high-tech now,” he said, “but the goal of selling the Republican brand and the willingness to stretch ethical boundaries to do that is the same today.”

Geofencing creates a virtual fence around a geographic location, allowing data brokers and digital marketing firms to either serve ads to people while they are inside the fence or capture their phones’ unique IDs for later use. The ads themselves appear in apps or on websites as the person uses their phone, whether they’re served up while the user is in the geofenced area or at a later date.

The geofence won’t necessarily pick up every phone inside it, and not every website or app will necessarily show the geofencer’s ad. So there’s an element of chance — the right person has to be looking at the right app or website at the right time.

Political campaigns and advocacy groups have embraced geofencing and other location-based tracking methods with gusto.

“That’s not an uncommon practice,” said Ashkan Soltani, former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission. “Identifying how regularly the voters attended church is a bit more nuanced depending on the granularity of the data the advertising is seeking. But targeting a location, including even a church, with location-based ads is something the technology easily permits.”

Here’s how geofencing information is collected: Our phones constantly give up our locations. Experts who spoke with ThinkProgress said there are several ways that brokers can collect that data. One method estimates the location of a phone based on the cell towers it pings as it looks for a signal. In other methods, some of a smart phone’s apps collect location data from its GPS chip or the wifi networks it connects to. Many of the biggest app makers then monetize that data, selling it to brokers and digital ad firms.

The data these app companies sell does not include the phone user’s name or phone number. But when The New York Times reviewed some of the location data that app makers sold to a broker, the paper was able to identify individual users and track them to a Planned Parenthood clinic, a middle school, an emergency room, and to their homes and offices.

The technology news site Motherboard went a step further, paying a bounty hunter to locate a specific phone in Queens, New York, after T-Mobile sold the user’s location data, gleaned from cell towers, to a broker who then re-sold it to third-party dealers.

It’s not clear what broker Bannon bought his Catholic church data from or how it was originally collected.

In filings with the Federal Election Commission, CatholicVote reported making payments to three marketing firms in 2018: American Targeted Advertising, Political Social Media, and Shiraz Media. None responded to an email requesting comment.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque did not collect or sell the data, did not approve its collection or sale, and was not aware that its churches had been geofenced before ThinkProgress contacted it requesting comment, according to spokesperson John Robins. But he did not seem surprised.

“I’m confused about what is newsworthy here,” Robins said in an email. “In general, this technology and methodology are not new. Both are commonplace in today’s digital environment.”

Political groups have geofenced everything from President Donald Trump’s rallies to the Women’s March on Washington in 2017 to help them identify potential voters who may be sympathetic to their message.

Geofencing churches is more rare, experts told ThinkProgress. But Bannon isn’t the first to do it. The Michigan GOP told Crain’s Detroit Business last year that it had geofenced evangelical Christian mega-churches.

There have been other controversial uses. In 2017, Copley Advertising settled with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office after it used geofencing to help anti-abortion groups target ads to women who visited Planned Parenthood clinics. Some lobbyists have even been geofencing places like the White House and Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel in hopes of influencing decision makers.

The cost of entry for geofencing is low, according to Joseph Sorrentino of the left-leaning marketing agency Precision Strategies. With the 2020 campaign season in full swing, the tactic doesn’t show any signs of slowing.

“Pretty much anyone with an advertising budget and the ability to do some Google searching and the ability to find a data broker who’s willing to play ball with a small player can do what Steve Bannon did,” Sorrentino said.

Still, Sorrentino is quick to point out that it takes more than geofenced data or a single get-out-the-vote ad to get real results.

“Deploying a single tactic is easy,” he said, “but laddering it up to some larger strategic effort, that results in measurable progress, is the hard work.”