Senior Campaign Official Says Netanyahu's Party Tracked Voters' Phones on Election Day

Gili Argentaro has told a podcast that voters could be located 'at the level of 15 meters' in a bid to get them to the polls

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara casting their ballots on Election Day in Jerusalem, March 2, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara casting their ballots on Election Day in Jerusalem, March 2, 2020. Credit: Marc Israel-Salem

Israeli public relations guru Gili Argentaro, the head of digital and information analysis for Likud’s recent election campaign, says the party used technology to track voters’ cellphones on Election Day, helping the party ensure that its traditional supporters went to the polls.

“We knew how to track the phone of everyone who appeared in our data. Did they go to the area of the polling place or remain at home?” Argentaro said in an interview on Meiran Pachman’s Ear Catcher podcast.

Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't winCredit: Haaretz Weekly Podcast

Argentaro said that if it appeared that a voter had not yet gone out to the polls, the voter would be sent a text message, or someone would come knocking on his or her door. If necessary, a taxi would be sent to ferry the voter to the polls.

The technology let the party know where a voter was “at the level of 15 meters [49 feet],” said Argentaro, one of the owners of Argentaro and Felix Advertising.

Activists of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party used data collected in previous election rounds and cross-checked it against information gathered during the latest campaign, Argentaro told Pachman. Parts of the interview have already been reported on The Seventh Eye, a website that specializes on the Israeli media industry.

When The Seventh Eye asked Argentaro about his comments, he issued a denial.

Argentaro and Felix Advertising said the methods mentioned in the interview “were not used by Likud. Unfortunately, this was needless boasting that was inappropriate – and we’ve made it clear to the Likud people who asked us to clarify the matter. We regret that Pachman invited to an interview a partner in the agency who had almost no contact with the campaign and spewed nonsense for most of the interview.”

For its part, Likud said the tracking “never happened. Likud didn’t use such technology. All Likud’s actions adhered to the law and were accompanied by legal advisers.”

In any case, in January 2019, Likud hired Argentaro and his partner Felix Gutcovitch to do the party’s digital media purchasing for the election three months later; their company worked with the ruling party in all three election campaigns over the past 11 months.

The agency did not just buy media time for Likud, it managed the entire digital campaign, both data analysis and the more creative aspects, Argentaro said.

He was asked if the campaign staff knew, through the tracking of cellphones, whether voters came to vote by themselves or with others.

“We saw who was marked Likud and who hadn’t left home and who had gone to the nearest polling station,” Argentaro replied. “And we operated a local sampling system at the level of 15 meters – what Google and Facebook don’t know how to do.”

He said those two companies know how to locate a user “at the level of 4.5 kilometers [2.8 miles]; in other words, you don’t really know if you motivated the voter to go to the polling place that day or not. With the tools we used, we saw who stayed home that day – and who went out to vote.”

Jonathan Klinger, the legal adviser of the Israeli Digital Rights Movement, says he does not believe it is possible to link a cellphone number to a person’s location in Israel in real time “without violating the secrecy obligations of the cellular suppliers” – the country’s cellular telecom companies.

Such cross-checking done without a warrant would appear to violate the law on communications data, Klinger added. “There are two reasonable scenarios that would explain how they received the location of phones in real time,” he said.

“Either they bribed a senior executive at the cellular company and received the information in an illegal way, or the half-possible scenario: They bought data in real time from all sorts of dubious apps that were installed on devices; let’s assume casual games. But I don’t see that happening in a logical way.”

Klinger’s second scenario has already been explored by The New York Times. The paper’s reporters found that smartphone apps installed by users allowed them to be tracked after they gave the apps permission to access their location.

The companies then sold this information. In one case, users could be tracked to an accuracy of only a few meters. The companies use, sell or analyze this data for advertisers, retailers and even hedge funds, which are all looking for information on their customers.

Argentaro talked about Likud using data left over from previous election campaigns and cross-checking it against the information collected in the last campaign – and using location technology based on cellphone numbers Likud had collected.

During the last campaign, Likud increased its collection of information on registered Israeli voters via its Elector app, hoping to gain information on potential Likud voters. The app was available in Apple’s App Store and Google Play, and could be downloaded by anyone.

The entire voter registry, which every party receives before every election, was loaded into Elector. Likud used the app to gather even more data on people by asking users to add information on their friends and family, including their phone numbers

Also, users of the app and Likud party activists could enter information on any registered voter; for example, if they were a Likud supporter, whether they planned to vote or how to convince them to vote Likud.

In early February, hackers and information-security specialists revealed that the Elector database could be easily hacked, and they found sensitive information that had been entered about voters such as health issues or party affiliations.

During the interview, Argentaro emphasized the importance of analyzing the data. “I won’t say anything new if I say that this data is the new gold – especially for marketing and advertising people,” he said.

“Following two elections we have hot and fresh data from the previous times – segmented and marked. Data is like coal: To get the diamond you have to mine. This diamond is the analysis of the information.”

If voters were indeed tracked on Election Day, this would seem to violate Israelis’ privacy. During the last election campaign, two petitions asked the Central Elections Committee to halt the collection of information on Israeli voters using the Elector app. The petitions asked the committee’s chairman, Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel, to issue an order preventing Likud from using the app to collect more information, including on Election Day.

The petitioners argued that the app violated election secrecy because it allowed anyone to know whether any specific Israeli had voted. After Hendel denied the petitions, the petitioners turned to the High Court of Justice – where they were also sent home empty-handed.

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