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How Political Campaigns Are Using 'Geofencing' Technology To Target Catholics At Mass


In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin by fewer than 23,000 votes. This time, a group that favors Trump is trying to ensure a repeat victory. And it's using something called geofencing to find churchgoing Catholics. For All Tech Considered, I spoke with Heidi Schlumpf of the National Catholic Reporter about what's going on.

HEIDI SCHLUMPF: Geofencing is a way of data mining that targets people based on their location. So when you agree to those apps that want to share your location data, geofencers are able to capture that when you enter or leave a geographically prescribed area - in this case, a church.

CORNISH: How does it happen? I mean, what is the trigger? I guess, as you're going to and from Mass?

SCHLUMPF: If your phone is on and you have an app open in which you've allowed the sharing of location data, the geofencers can capture your IP address and other data from your phone. And then they can target ads directly to that device. But they can also cross-reference that data that they've acquired with other data sets, so in this case, probably voter rolls. And already we have this conservative Catholic organization that's doing exactly that to try to target Catholic voters.

CORNISH: Who's the organization, and what have you learned about what they're up to?

SCHLUMPF: The organization is called CatholicVote. And on their website, it lists a number of issues that are important to them. But in the end, they narrow it down to three really culture war issues. And that's abortion, gay marriage and what they call religious liberty.

CORNISH: Now, you report that, using geofencing, CatholicVote has already identified some 200,000 Catholics in Wisconsin, which of course is a key state heading into 2020. They're able to discover that half of those Mass-goers are not registered to vote. Help us understand, from there, how does this give them the advantage, so to speak?

SCHLUMPF: Yeah. CatholicVote, the organization, is planning what they're calling the largest Catholic voter mobilization program ever, based on this geofenced information that they've mined. It's basically a get-out-the-vote effort. They've identified these people who are regular Mass-goers. They want to get them registered to vote and get them to the polls because they have data that shows that 60% to 70% percent of regular Catholic churchgoers - again, especially in these geographic areas of white suburban churches that they're targeting - are going to vote for the Republican Party, and in this case, Donald Trump.

CORNISH: Now, as far as I know, geofencing is not illegal. But I understand that there are some Catholics in particular who are aware this is happening and are upset about it.

SCHLUMPF: You're right to say that it's not illegal, but the idea of mining data of people while they're at worship in a church was causing outrage to some of our readers. And the fact then that that data is going to be used for political purposes added to their problems with this.

CORNISH: What are some of the specific criticisms that people had about this?

SCHLUMPF: Some people are upset about the general lack of privacy. A number of people have already accepted that that's going to happen, but again, found it problematic that it's being used in churches. Now, it's important to note that the churches themselves were not aware and had not consented in any way that the data of their worship attendees was being collected.

CORNISH: What has CatholicVote said about this when you reached out to them?

SCHLUMPF: CatholicVote did not respond to our requests for an interview, but they seem quite proud of this plan and have been talking about it on their website and their blog.

CORNISH: It sounds weird. It's a little bit like someone sitting outside your house and using your Wi-Fi.

SCHLUMPF: Well, I think it's important to note that geofencing happens all the time. So it happens when you go to the store. It happens when you go to the mall. And it's been used by political campaigns and political groups for at least the last two presidential campaigns, I've been told. Democrats use geofencing as well, just not, to my knowledge, in churches, since that's not where their base is.

CORNISH: That's Heidi Schlumpf of the National Catholic Reporter.

Thank you for sharing your journalism with us.

SCHLUMPF: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.