Almost 17,000 Protesters Had No Idea A Tech Company Was Tracing Their Location
Data company Mobilewalla used cellphone information to estimate the demographics of protesters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren says it’s “shady” and concerning.
On the weekend of May 29, thousands of people marched, sang, grieved, and chanted, demanding an end to police brutality and the defunding of police departments in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. They marched en masse in cities like Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, empowered by their number and the assumed anonymity of the crowd. And they did so completely unaware that a tech company was using location data harvested from their cellphones to predict their race, age, and gender and where they lived.
Just over two weeks later, that company, Mobilewalla, released a report titled "George Floyd Protester Demographics: Insights Across 4 Major US Cities." In 60 pie charts, the document details what percentage of protesters the company believes were male or female, young adult (18–34); middle-aged 35º54, or older (55+); and "African-American," "Caucasian/Others," "Hispanic," or “Asian-American.”
"These companies can even sell this data to the government, which can use it for law and immigration enforcement."
"African American males made up the majority of protesters in the four observed cities vs. females,” Mobilewalla claimed. “Men vs. women in Atlanta (61% vs. 39%), in Los Angeles (65% vs. 35%), in Minneapolis (54% vs. 46%) and in New York (59% vs. 41%)." The company analyzed data from 16,902 devices at protests — including exactly 8,152 devices in New York, 4,527 in Los Angeles, 2,357 in Minneapolis, and 1,866 in Atlanta.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren told BuzzFeed News that Mobilewalla’s report was alarming, and an example of the consequences of the lack of regulation on data brokers in the US.
“This report shows that an enormous number of Americans – probably without even knowing it – are handing over their full location history to shady location data brokers with zero restrictions on what companies can do with it,” Warren said. “In an end-run around the Constitution's limits on government surveillance, these companies can even sell this data to the government, which can use it for law and immigration enforcement. That's why I've opened an investigation into the government contracts held by location data brokers, and I’ll keep pushing for answers.”
It’s unclear how accurate Mobilewalla’s analysis actually is. But Mobilewalla's report is another revelation from a wild west of obscure companies with untold amounts of sensitive information about individuals — including where they go and what their political allegiances may be. There are no federal laws in place to prevent this information from being abused.
Mobilewalla CEO Anindya Datta told BuzzFeed News that the data analysis that made the George Floyd Protester Demographics possible wasn’t a new kind of project. “The underlying data, the underlying observations that came into the report, is something that we collect and produce on a regular basis,” he said
"It is really just fundamentally terrifying"
Datta said Mobilewalla didn’t prepare the report for law enforcement or a public agency, but rather to satisfy its own employees' curiosity about what its vast trove of unregulated data could reveal about the demonstrators. Datta told BuzzFeed News that the company doesn’t plan to include information about whether a person attended a protest to its clients, or to law enforcement agencies.
“It’s hard to tell you a specific reason as to why we did this,” Datta said. “But over time, a bunch of us in the company were watching with curiosity and some degree of alarm as to what’s going on.” He defined those sources of alarm as what he called "antisocial behavior," including vandalism, looting, and actions like "breaking the glass of an Apple store.” He added that they were attempting to test if protests were being driven by outside agitators.
Datta said that he and a few Mobilewalla employees chose locations where they expected protests would occur — including the George Floyd memorial site in Minneapolis, and Gracie Mansion in New York — and analyzed data from mobile devices in those areas collected between May 29 and May 31.
Jacinta González, a senior campaign organizer at Latinx advocacy group Mijente, told BuzzFeed News that by monitoring protesters, Mobilewalla could undermine freedom of assembly.
“It is really just fundamentally terrifying to understand the way that companies can access such vast amounts of data to process for their own gain — without folks understanding even that they have consented to their information being taken, much less used in this way,” González said.
“It’s important to understand that once technology hits the market, it's actually very hard to limit who has access to it — whether it is police, or whether it is other actors that want to harm communities,” González added. “Once this stuff is out there, we just have no way of understanding how it’s being used. Often we don’t even know that it’s out there to begin with.”
Mobilewalla does not collect the data itself, but rather buys it from a variety of sources, including advertisers, data brokers, and internet service providers. Once it has it, the company uses artificial intelligence to turn a stew of location data, device IDs, and browser histories to predict a person's demographics — including race, age, gender, zip code, or personal interests. Mobilewalla sells aggregated versions of that stuff back to advertisers. On its website, Mobilewalla says that it works with companies across a variety of industries — like retail, dining, telecom, banking, consulting, health, and on-demand services (like ride-hailing).
"Who would know that they’d be using it to track demographics of people at protests?"
It’s unclear how accurate this report actually is. Datta told BuzzFeed News that his company, on average, has access to location data for 30% to 60% of people in any given location in the United States. Mobilewalla said in a YouTube video that it collects an average of 25 billion “signals” (or pieces of information, like GPS coordinates) every day. Every week, these signals pour in from an average of 1.6 billion devices. Datta said that about 300 million of these devices are in the US. (This doesn’t mean that Mobilewalla collected data on 300 million people, because one person might have more than one device that Mobilewalla is tracking.)
Saira Hussain, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told BuzzFeed News that Mobilewalla’s report was not surprising, but very troubling.
“If [this data] ends up in hands of the government, or if protesters are concerned that it could end up in the hands of the government, that may suppress speech, it may deter people from going to protests,” Hussain said.
There is currently no federal law that regulates how companies like Mobilewalla — which buy and sell people’s data on the internet — can use people’s information. Hussain noted that information about data-sharing can be buried in the Terms of Service, there isn’t meaningful consent built into most privacy policies.
“Given how many different industries that this company works within for targeted advertising, it seems that you probably wouldn’t know, once the information in the company’s hands, exactly what they’re gonna be using it for,” Hussain said. “And who would know that they’d be using it to track demographics of people at protests?”