Aggressive use of personal data by political campaigns prompts alarm for privacy advocates
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Since the 2008 elections, technology has rapidly changed and many more people are getting information through social media, smartphones and other technological fronts. This year, campaigns are aggressively using this technology, allowing them to tailor their message for specific groups, and reach the millions of voters who are always an arm’s-length away from a mobile device. But some of these innovations have privacy advocates concerned, including an app from the Obama campaign that reveals the exact location of nearby Democrats, and the Romney campaign’s reliance on companies who track user behavior on- and off-line. FSRN’s Alice Ollstein reports.
With the presidential election just weeks away, both major parties are using sophisticated technological tools to identify potential voters and donors, and bombard them with ads and messages. They’re buying detailed information from third party companies about millions of web and smartphone users, which could include their military service history, employment status, past donations to certain causes, level of education, and even their web search and social media history.
BECKETT: It can be your age, your gender, even what kinds of websites you visit online.
That’s Lois Beckett with ProPublica, who has been reporting on targeted advertising for the group’s Campaign 2012 Project. She explained how the companies gather this online behavior data and hand it over to political campaigns.
One company openly collaborating with a campaign is the music site Pandora, where targeted ads have been popping up urging listeners to share their e-mails with Mitt Romney. While users can click no, they have no way to find out why and how they were targeted.
BECKETT: One of the ways Pandora makes money is by saying, “We’ve collected someone’s e-mail address and zip code, we have an idea if they’re male or female. So you can target your advertising to a person in a swing state, potentially, perhaps by the kind of music she was listening to,” but it also makes it easy for campaigns to collect e-mail addresses.
Romney’s campaign has also been tracking potential supporters offline. The Associated Press reported last week that the campaign hired the analytics company Buxton to mine consumer data across the country, and identify who was rich enough and interested enough to donate.
BECKETT: There are companies that collect information from the retailers that you shop with, from public records, if you buy or sell a house, if you got a marriage license, all of that stuff will be scooped up by these big data companies to try to find out what things you like to buy. And the political campaign can also use this information in order to see if someone might be willing to give to Romney.
Romney’s campaign has also partnered with the company “Share This,” which embeds buttons on his own and other websites that let users post links on Twitter and Facebook, and which allow the company to put cookies on your computer and track you if you click on one of those buttons.
BECKETT: If you visited Mitt Romney’s website but didn’t donate, you haven’t “bought” Mitt yet as a candidate, they’re going to pop up those ads as they follow you around the web, hoping you’ll commit later on.
Privacy advocates and watchdog groups are also concerned about the explosion of political apps for mobile phones, a largely unregulated forum with the potential for privacy violations, voter suppression activities, and hacking. Elizabeth Rosenberg with the Electronic Privacy Information Center co-authored a report earlier this month on the potential dangers of election apps.
ROSENBERG: Like any other mobile app, when you get a campaign app on your smartphone or tablet, it’s going to collect lots of information about you. There’s a lot of geolocation information as well as demographic information and personalized information. It’s not anonymous. They know who you are. And that information is free, not only for the campaign themselves, but also the developers to use, and anybody connected to the developer.
Rosenberg expressed concern that this technology could be used to send incorrect or misleading information to certain groups of voters, who could be identified based on this data, though there have not yet been any reports of this happening. She also said an app could gather personal information from users’ e-mails, text messages and other apps that’s useful to campaigns, without the user ever knowing or agreeing.
The Obama campaign unveiled an app this summer that they promoted as a canvassing tool for volunteers. The app allows anyone with a smartphone to look up the names and home addresses of people in their neighborhood likely to support the President’s reelection.
ROSENBERG: In the terms of service, there’s a specific clause saying that if you’re being given geo-location data for other voters, it says, “You are not to stalk them.” And that’s kind of scary, because it means the possibility exists that someone’s going to get stalked. There’s no reason that someone who hates Obama voters and registered Democrats can’t go stalk them.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center’s report includes some ways users can protect themselves, such as only downloading apps from an organization or campaign’s website rather than the phone’s app store, and regularly clearing cookies from web browser. But she said the most important step is research.
ROSENBERG: If you are going to download a political app onto your phone, no one is going to protect you. It’s your job to investigate where that app comes from, who made it, because it was probably not developed by the campaigns themselves, and to find out whether that’s a reputable third-party provider.
Avoiding targeted political advertising is more difficult, but ProPublica’s Beckett had some suggestions.
BECKETT: One of the easiest things to do, is if you see an ad with a little blue triangle in the corner and you click on that, it will bring you to a site where you can learn a little more about targeted advertising and opt out of seeing those ads.
Since campaigns have no obligation to disclose their tracking and targeted advertising efforts, watchdog groups like ProPublica have had to crowdsource information from the public. They’re urging web users who receive targeted ads from any political campaign to send a screenshot to Targeting2012@propublica.org.
Alice Ollstein, FSRN, Washington