These days, almost every presidential candidate has an app that supporters can download, keeping voters informed (ostensibly) and boosting turnout (theoretically). But, according to the Associated Press, none is more invasive than Ted Cruz’s “Cruz Crew” app.
So far, the app has been downloaded to more than 61,000 devices. Upon registration, users give the app access to their Facebook accounts—and all the information contained therein—or else provide a phone number or email address. Users have to opt-out of agreements to share their contact lists and location with the campaign.
“Analytics gives the campaign a roadmap for everything we do,” the campaign’s data and digital director, Chris Wilson. Cruz, whose parents are mathematicians and data processing programmers, “has an acute understanding of our work and continually pushes me on it.” Maybe so, but upon announcing his candidacy, Cruz positioned himself as an advocate for digital privacy: “Instead of a government that seizes your emails and your cellphones, imagine a federal government that protected the privacy rights of every American.”
The Cruz campaign doesn’t just keep the data gathered by the app for itself—it also shares it with a British company called Cambridge Analytica, which is owned, at least in part, by New York hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who also happens to be Ted Cruz’s most generous donor. From Politico, which broke the story of Cambridge Analytica’s activities, and the Mercer family’s involvement, this summer:
Federal Election Commission filings show that nearly 93 percent of the $2.6 million Cambridge Analytica has received in traceable federal payments has come from committees to which the Mercers donated generously. The payments — which all came last year and were for polling, micro-targeting, advertising and other services — came from Cruz’s leadership PAC and a handful of GOP-aligned big-money organizations, including Ending Spending Action Fund, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton’s super PAC and a pop-up super PAC created to boost 2014 Republican Senate candidates. Other Cambridge Analytica clients included the campaigns of GOP Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansasand Thom Tillis of North Carolina, as well as unsuccessful GOP House candidate Art Robinson of Oregon. The Mercers combined to donate nearly $3.3 million to those groups in 2014, according to FEC filings.
In turn, according to the AP, the Cruz campaign paid Cambridge $3.8 million last year (8 percent of its total spending). Two outside groups supporting the campaign, meanwhile, have paid Cambridge $682,000 since December. (Mercer had previously given one of those groups $11 million.) The data the campaign provides Cambridge with is valuable, too, supplementing its already gargantuan, 10 terabyte database containing information about the 240 million Americans eligible to vote.
The idea is to pinpoint something Cambridge calls voters’ “psychographic score.” From the AP:
Cambridge considers its methodology highly secretive, but it may include such details as household income, employment status, credit history, party affiliation, church membership and spending habits. Cambridge uses powerful computers and proprietary algorithms to predict Americans’ personality traits.
Cambridge’s database combines government and commercial data sets such as voter rolls and lists of people who liked certain Facebook posts, along with consumer data from grocery chains and other clients that can provide a voter’s preferred brand of toothpaste or whether he clips coupons. In Iowa, where identifying evangelical voters was key to Cruz’s victory strategy, Cambridge’s employees scoured the Internet for such useful information as church membership rolls.
“We’ve quantified the personalities of every adult American,” Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix said, describing five basic personality types the firm has determined from academic research and tens of thousands of monthly questionnaires. (Nix is also the director of SCL Group, a British consulting firm that helps incite coups.) “We can reach out and target those different clusters with messages about the things they care about most, but that have been nuanced to resonate with their personality type.”
Jerry Sickles, a paid Cruz field representative in New Hampshire, dismissed the privacy concerns “It’s not like we’re giving it to the NSA,” he told the AP. Alice Stewart, a campaign spokeswoman, asked “Why wouldn’t we want to use every tool available to us to win?”