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Between the Lines: Data-Dumpster Diving

Democrats and Republicans have spent millions prying into voters’ privacy.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Attention, American citizens! Have you visited a porn website recently? Do you have any gay friends? Is your home in foreclosure? Do you drink Michelob or Samuel Adams?

None of my business, you say? Probably not, but Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have made it their business to know these and other intimate details of your personal life. Moreover, they may have already shared them with a host of your friends and colleagues, who in turn may have shared them with their friends and colleagues. What’s worse, you may be getting a phone call soon from one of them, armed with these and other facts about you, intent on shaming you on Facebook and other social media sites for not voting in the past and trying to persuade you, through an adroit mix of social encouragement and opprobrium, to go to the ballot box next month.

Sadly but predictably, the data mining techniques now being employed by large corporations have emerged as powerful weapons on both sides of the battle for the American presidency. As the New York Times recently reported, “Consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems.”

Of course, officials with both campaigns are admittedly doing their best to keep their sleazy practices secret. “You don’t want your analytical efforts to be obvious because voters get creeped out,” one unnamed Romney campaign official confessed to a Times reporter. “A lot of what we’re doing is behind the scenes.”

On the record, spokesmen for both sides naturally pledge allegiance to voters’ privacy, claiming that they are “adhering to industry best practices on privacy and going above and beyond what’s required by law,” as Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman, put it, and “ensuring that all of our voter outreach is governed by the highest ethical standards,” in the words of Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams.

How high are their standards? Not very. Consultants to both campaigns admit to buying targeted demographic data from companies that creepily study our habits, preferences and problems. Both campaigns have planted software on voters’ computers, for example, to see which websites they frequent, “evangelical or erotic.” And both have experimented with the idea of embarrassing non-voters “by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online.” One Democratic consultant wondered aloud if this is the year to start shaming.

“Obama can’t do it,” he noted. “But the superPACs are anonymous. They don’t have to put anything on the flier to let the voter know who to blame.”

How bad is this hidden data-dumpster diving? Both the Democratic and Republican National Committees have already spent millions on data acquisition, often paying companies that are undergoing scrutiny from Congress over privacy concerns or have been sued over alleged privacy or consumer protection violations.

With social media a key determinant in persuading supporters to turn out to vote, the new techniques of data mining and social shaming could play a decisive role in this year’s election. Both campaigns have been asking supporters to provide access to their profiles on Facebook and other social networks so they can determine their connections to other potential voters in key “battleground states.”

Clearly the Obama camp, with a long head start in the social media arena and a heavy 2012 emphasis on digital campaigning, is leading on this front. But as the Times noted, both Obama and Romney campaign officials “increasingly sound like executives from retailers like Target and credit card companies like Capital One, both of which extensively use data to model customers’ habits.” Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, explained it best: “Target anticipates your habits, which direction you automatically turn when you walk through the doors, what you automatically put in your shopping cart. We’re doing the same thing with how people vote.”

For the record, then, I drink Samuel Adams beer, never eat at Red Lobster or Olive Garden, don’t shop much (certainly not at Burlington Coat Factory,) and both smooth jazz and college football leave me cold. Does that make me an Obama or Romney supporter? I’m not telling. After all, I cherish my privacy!•

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