5 voter data questions for the presidential campaigns

Obama Romney campaign data miningUpdate, 11/12/2012: We received answers to the questions we posed in this blog post from an employee with President Obama’s campaign. Read them here.

Big data played a major role in the success of the 2012 Obama campaign, as articles in Time, the New York Times, and other publications have highlighted. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns used “microtargeting” to tailor specific ads to specific voters: they combined voters’ offline activities (such as charitable donations, credit card spending, voting history, and Congressional district) with their online activities (such as favorite websites, things Liked on Facebook, and ads clicked) to create sophisticated, accurate profiles of individuals.

The candidates’ websites, mobile and Facebook apps, social media pages, emails, and more feed into this profile. New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg explains that campaign volunteers have “access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.”

What’s more, the campaigns’ websites identify supporters to third-party tracking companies, leaking personal information like username, email address, and home address through URL text. Yep, if you registered for an account on either Obama or Romney’s website, it’s possible that a whole lot of unaffiliated tracking companies have your info. 

Care to answer a few questions?

A lot of Americans are worried about the short and long term effects of all this data collection. In an effort to see if we can get more information, we’re posting a list of open questions about how voters’ personal information is being used. If we get a response, we’ll post the answers in a follow-up. Also, if you’d would like to respond anonymously, we commit to honoring your anonymity.

If you’re a data miner for a campaign or have insider knowledge, we’d love to hear your totally candid responses about the following questions:

1. How detailed did the profiles that the campaign built up about people get? Was it “category of single guys in OH who like microbrews,” or “John Smith in Ohio who hasn’t had a girlfriend in 3 years and always drinks Dogfishhead?” Bonus: can we see a (redacted) real profile you’ve built up on someone?

2. Databases of personal information have become a valuable asset in a growing number of campaigns. Is there anything stopping campaigns in debt after the election from fulfilling that debt by selling  the data to marketers and other third parties?

3. Let’s talk about online tracking. Advertisers always argue that the data they collect doesn’t pose any privacy problems because it’s aggregated and “de-personalized,” while researchers say there’s no such thing as truly anonymous tracking. Given your experience, who’s closer to the truth?

4. The New York Times reported that both presidential campaigns were supplementing their online tracking data about voters with offline data from big sellers like Acxiom. Assuming that’s true, what sort of information could you get from them to enhance your own data?

5. Be honest: do we have anything to worry about? Is this data collection truly for the limited purpose of the campaign, or is it going elsewhere? Has it been/could it be misused to harm people?

Readers, do you have additional questions about how the campaigns’ tracking affects your privacy? Post them below (and make sure to use our free DoNotTrackPlus tool to block online tracking)!

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