Spying on presidents used to be a tough business. One of the great unsung heroes of American history was a formerly enslaved woman named Mary Bowser, a spy who infiltrated the family of Jefferson Davis as a domestic servant, and eventually landed a full-time job in the Southern White House, the political seat of his Confederacy. Armed with a photographic memory and an all-access pass to the inner workings of the Davis administration, she fed details daily to the Union army, which Ulysses S. Grant called the “most valuable information” he received from the Southern capital during the war.
These days, it’s a whole lot easier. While researching our new book, The Secret Life of Data, we gathered some sensitive information from Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s Palm Beach club, which he used as a base for political operations both during and after his presidency. He even referred to on several occasions as his “Southern White House.”
We didn’t have to risk life and limb, posing as the help and smuggling information out through a well-funded spy ring. All we had to do was sign up for an online service, enter the address of Mar-a-Lago, and click a button. Within a few minutes, we had a report profiling thousands of visitors to Trump’s club over the course of an entire year, including details like where they likely live and work, their ages, incomes, ethnicities, education levels, where they were immediately before visiting, and where they spent their time on the property once they got there.
This wasn’t some dark web hacker thing. No Bitcoin was exchanged. The service we used was perfectly legal and freely available on the open web, one of dozens of “data brokers” that collect and trade in consumer data. It’s a $300-billion-per-year business — about the same as the gross domestic product of Hong Kong. This particular data broker, called Near, uses smartphone location data to trace the foot traffic of about 1.6 billion people across 70 million locations in 44 countries.
Near isn’t set up to spy on U.S. presidents, current or former. Their typical customer is a retail business, using location data to track the origin points of visitors to brick-and-mortar stores so it can market more effectively. But, on the other hand, it’s not set up not to spy on presidents, either. Once data gets collected and analyzed, there’s no telling who’s going to use it or for what purposes; it has its own secret life. And that can be pretty dangerous both for individual privacy and, on a bigger scale, for democracy itself. That’s the main point of our book and the reason we wanted to see what we could do with Near’s data.
Fair is fair, so we decided to spy on ourselves first. Near showed us daytime and evening locations associated with visitors to one of our homes between December 2020 and December 2021, including a teaching assistant, several of our children’s friends, and, presumably, food delivery workers, our mail carriers, and an exterminator. It showed traffic spikes when we had large outdoor parties. It showed the most common age of visitors was under 18 (accurate, as we had two school-aged children), that 50 percent of our visitors were white, and that the median household income of our visitors was $96,487 (about $20,000 below the local average).
Then we turned our sights on Mar-a-Lago. While our home traffic hovered around 100 people, mostly originating within a 10-mile radius, Trump’s visitors during that same year numbered in the thousands from all over the globe. Checking tabs conveniently labeled “Common Evening Location” and “Common Daytime Location,” we were able to identify the likely homes and workplaces of any given visitor, marked as dots over buildings on a map. Is this Mary Bowser-level spying? Definitely not. Can it give you valuable information about Trump and his circle? For sure.
The vast majority of Mar-a-Lago visitors typically spend their days and nights in the U.S., east of the Mississippi. But that makes the exceptions — the far-flung travelers — stand out on the map of the globe like sore thumbs. Even though the data is technically “anonymized” (we can’t see the age, income, or ethnicity of a specific visitor, let alone their name), the pinpoint locations of where they spend their days and nights makes educated guesswork pretty easy.
For instance, one of the dots on the map is a private residence in Akure, a mid-sized city in southwestern Nigeria. That’s a seemingly unlikely origin for a Mar-a-Lago visitor, especially considering that Trump famously referred to African nations as “shithole countries” and accused Nigerians of living in “huts.” Who would spend their days in a house on a small, walled-in lot on the corner of Fabusuyi St., Akure, and then fly all the way to Mar-a-Lago?
A few minutes of Googling gave us a very likely answer: Abraham O. Adeyemi, a pastor at the Fellowship Baptist Church Akure, about 20 minutes up the road from the private residence associated with the Mar-a-Lago visitor. There are two pieces of evidence that suggest Adeyemi was Trump’s visitor. First, amidst anti-abortion, anti-masking, and anti-vaccination memes, Adeyemi’s Instagram profile features a photo of his wife standing in a walled green lot in front of a white-roofed building, a strong match for the satellite photo of the property on commercial mapping platforms. Second, and far more compellingly, Adeyemi tweeted a video of a Nigerian pro-Trump parade in October 2020, which Trump retweeted and posted to Facebook on Election Day, commenting, “A parade for me in Nigeria, a great honor!”
As far as we can tell, there’s no public record of Adeyemi ever visiting Mar-a-Lago. On the other hand, there’s nothing particularly sinister about it, either. If Trump wanted to invite a staunch supporter to his private property, that was his right. Same goes for the visitor we traced back to a business address on the outskirts of Moscow registered as the office of a petrochemical company called Agro Allied Agency, or the other we digitally followed to a residential and business complex in Kherson, a port city in southern Ukraine which has been the site of some of the most intense fighting of the war. (Representatives for Adeyemi and Trump did not respond to Rolling Stone‘s requests for comment.)
We’re probably not the only ones looking. Plenty of other people are interested in finding such things — not just legitimate actors like journalists and prosecutors, but also dangerous ones, like blackmailers and foreign intelligence organizations. And that makes brokers like Near a serious liability in a data-saturated world.
And Trump isn’t the only one at risk. Every one of us leaks massive amounts of data every day of our lives as we go about our regular business. As Dennis Crowley, the founder of a data broker called Foursquare, tells us, many of the apps on our devices are data harvesters posing as something more innocent, like little digital Trojan horses.
“A lot of shitty poker games and solitaire games and flashlight apps and Tamagotchi stuff was just designed to collect location data and sell it to third-party brokers,” Crowley says. And that data never disappears, he says. Even though most of it has no practical value today, brokers keep it anyway, because hard drives are cheap, and there’s no telling what may become valuable in the future — say, if a private real estate developer suddenly gets elected to national office.
We managed to spy on a sitting president in his own home from the comfort of our couches just by messing around with the free version of a single data broker’s web app. Now imagine what a dedicated forensic team could do, working 24/7, with access to the full paid services of every commercial data broker, in addition to all of the other data sources out there, from high-tech hacking to old-fashioned surveillance. It’s one of those cases where reality is actually worse than the stories told in dystopian sci-fi and superhero movies.
That’s why, if we’re ever going to get out of this mess, preserving individual privacy and the conditions for functional democracy, we all need to start thinking about technology the same way we think about supervillains. When Congress writes new laws, when big tech companies introduce new tools to the market, and when businesses and consumers invite new apps and gadgets into their homes and workplaces, it’s not enough just to take tech at face value. A data broker is never just a marketing service and a shitty poker app is never just a game. They’re cracks in the foundation of our society, and they can be exploited to tear it apart.
So, from here on in, every conversation about the future of technology needs to begin with someone asking what’s the worst that could happen. Because we guarantee you it will.
Aram Sinnreich and Jesse Gilbert are the authors of The Secret Life of Data, due out from MIT Press in April, 2024.