One of the reasons President Obama was re-elected, according to observers, is the way his campaign made use of data-mining and other on-line resources. This article by Craig Timberg and Amy Gardner in the Washington Post details what the campaign did and says how other Democrats are trying to get their hands on the database that was compiled.
But when you read the article, do red flags about privacy keep coming up? I wonder if people who are worried about the information Google collects on each one of us has a similar concern about the information the Democratic party collects on each one of us. And if the commercial use of this kind of information is problematic, isn’t the political use even worse?
If you voted this election season, President Obama almost certainly has a file on you. His vast campaign database includes information on voters’ magazine subscriptions, car registrations, housing values and hunting licenses, along with scores estimating how likely they were to cast ballots for his reelection.
And although the election is over, Obama’s database is just getting started. . . .
The database consists of voting records and political donation histories bolstered by vast amounts of personal but publicly available consumer data, say campaign officials and others familiar with the operation. It could record hundreds of pieces of information for each voter.
Campaign workers added far more detail through a broad range of voter contacts — in person, on the phone, via e-mail or through visits to the campaign’s Web site. Those who used its Facebook app, for example, had their files updated with lists of their Facebook friends, along with scores measuring the intensity of those relationships and whether they lived in swing states. If their last names sounded Hispanic, a key target group for the campaign, the database recorded that, too. . . .
All Democratic candidates have access to the party’s lists, which include voting and donation histories along with some consumer data. What Obama’s database adds are the more fine-grained analyses of what issues matter most to voters and how best to motivate them to donate, volunteer and vote. . . .
The database powered nearly everything about Obama’s campaign, including fundraising, identifying likely supporters and urging them to vote. This resulted in an operational edge that helped a candidate with a slim margin in the overall national vote to trounce Romney in the state-by-state electoral college contests.
Obama was able to collect and use personal data largely free of the restrictions that govern similar efforts by private companies. Neither the Federal Trade Commission, which has investigated the handling of personal data by Google, Facebook and other companies, nor the Federal Election Commission has jurisdiction over how campaigns use such information, officials at those agencies say.
Privacy advocates say the opportunity for abuse — by Obama, Romney or any other politician’s campaign — is serious, as is the danger of hackers stealing the data. Voters who willingly gave campaigns such information may not have understood that it would be passed on to the party or other candidates, even though disclosures on Web sites and Facebook apps warn of that possibility.
Chris Soghoian, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former FTC technologist, said voters should worry that the interests of politicians and commercial data brokers have aligned, making legal restrictions of data collection less likely.
“They’re going to be loath to regulate those companies if they are relying on them to target voters,” he said.