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Whether you're casting your ballot for Obama or Romney this November, or you're still on the fence, chances are both campaigns know it, thanks to vast amounts of personal data they've collected about eligible voters. In the seven weeks remaining until the election on Nov. 6, both campaigns will feed this data into statistical models to determine whether, and how, to enlist your support.
In a tight general election race (recent polls generally show Obama leading Romney by 3-5 points nationally), victory may hinge on which candidate best uses data to suss out supporters in unlikely places and get them to the polls. As campaigns crunch the numbers, they face few rules governing how they use the data; those they follow are largely self-imposed, or else dictated by licensing agreements with data suppliers. "It's less regulated than commercial applications of the same thing," says Michael Simon, principle with The Victors Group, who ran voter targeting for Obama in 2008.
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Data mining to target voters is nothing new, of course. Before television, direct marketing and analytics software, campaign workers in local precincts knew plenty about their neighbors, and used that information to make personal appeals. Later, candidates mashed up public records with consumer marketing data to develop advertising and fundraising appeals. Now, there's more data, it's centrally managed and may include people's social connections. Meanwhile, independent advocacy groups that support candidates or specific issues, but which aren't related to official campaigns or parties, also collect data from the same types of sources to target voters.
All that profiling works for candidates, but voters are leery. In a study published in July by the Annenberg School of Communications, 86% of people surveyed said they were against receiving targeted political advertising; 64% said they would be at least somewhat less likely to support a candidate who bought information about their online activities and then sent them different ads than their neighbors.
"A lot of people who get involved in campaigns to a point where they are actively following it probably don't have any problem with the campaign knowing what they're doing," says Lillie Coney, associate director with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The issues about privacy come into play when people aren't aware of data going out there."
What the Candidates Know
It's easy for candidates to know nearly everything about you, from whether you own your house to what kind of car you drive. Voter profiles start with public sources like voter records, which contain party affiliation and who voted in past elections. Campaigns also collect addresses, professional licensing and business information and other freely available data they can match with voters' names.
Like corporate marketers, they buy consumer and membership data, too, from data brokers such as InfoUSA and Acxiom, and from groups sympathetic to their message, giving campaigns access to any data about you that companies or organizations share. If you've given money to or volunteered for the candidate in the past, or gave information at a campaign event, that's part of the record. Mix in browser cookies (dropped, perhaps, when you went to the candidate's website to check out his position on tax reform), your public Facebook data (if you've Liked a candidate's page) and data from political smartphone apps, and campaigns can build deeply detailed dossiers of your information. That includes who your friends are and even what food you like to eat.
With information like this in hand, both Obama and Romney are able to target online ads and email messages. They can deliver information about voters to field workers, who call voters or campaign door-to-door. And they can mobilize enthusiasts to donate, volunteer or simply spread the word. Plus, independent groups may engage in their own promotions to build support for a candidate or encourage voters to go to the polls.
"The Holy Grail," says Simon, would be for computers to match people's public posts in social media about political issues such as healthcare with profile information already in campaign databases and use it to refine voter targeting models or tailor messages for individual voters. "Being able to figure out and match the people who like Obama to the voter file is not terribly difficult, [although] on Twitter most people don't use their real names." It's more difficult, he says, "for a computer to be able to understand and decontexuailze their post about health reform."
Obama is widely credited for having an advanced voter targeting program, and Romney's digital director, Zach Moffat, has acknowledged Obama's head start. But Romney has also used voter targeting successfully to win primaries in states such as Florida. Moffat has said the campaign has focused heavily on reaching out to voters online, in social media and on mobile devices. Both campaigns have invested in technologies and services for analyzing social media data.
Who (or What) Protects Your Data?
Maybe you're one of those people who don't mind seeing political ads. "Targeted ads are harmless," says Jay Chaudhry, CEO of Zscaler, which provides Internet security services to companies. On the other hand, "they're a nuisance, because you're getting bombarded with things." Chaudhry worries more about the potential for abusing voter profiles -- especially profiles that include Facebook data -- to discriminate against opponents or engage in "social engineering."
A recent EPIC study on smartphones, privacy and the 2012 election, which Coney co-authored, speculates that operatives unaffiliated with any campaign could send inexperienced voters deceptive messages, giving them wrong or misleading information about voting hours or identification requirements as a way to suppress voter turnout. However, Coney says, "I can't imagine a candidate or campaign that would want to do this."
Meanwhile, laws designed to help individuals prevent marketers from targeting them, such as the federal Do Not Call list, don't apply to political campaigns, says Coney. And employees aren't necessarily protected if their views run counter to those of their employers. In 2004, an Alabama woman who worked for a Bush supporter was fired because she refused to remove a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker from her car, and in March, a Wisconsin janitor lost her job when she declined to remove a sign from her car supporting Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
"There are no rules" for protecting voter privacy at the federal level, Coney says, though some states have voter privacy laws. It's up to the campaigns to police themselves -- and listen to voters who don't want to be targeted.
Licensing agreements with data providers may include rules for how information they provide is used. For example, in 2008, consumer data the Obama campaign obtained from InfoUSA could only be read by computers, says Dan Langer, president of Data Farm Consulting, who was the campaign's national data director. The data would be matched with voter records in order to generate a targeting "score" that told strategists how to approach particular voters. But campaign workers wouldn't know which of hundreds of data elements generated the result. "It's not like anyone can look up an individual consumer and search one person at a time," he says.
Nor, says Simon, "could you say I want a list of all the Prius owners in Michigan and send them something about the environment." Anyone who was allowed to have access to the database had to sign a document agreeing to abide by the rules, says Langer. "These are professionals who are working with the data. They want to continue working in this business and they take it very seriously."
Voters who don't want to be targeted need to take matters into their own hands, by telling campaigns not to bother them. "Campaigns don't want to call you if you don't want to be called," says Coney. "You can [follow] their Twitter feed and talk about how they're annoying you to death."
If it's important to you to shield information about your views, the best advice is to think about what you say in public -- including online and in social media -- and to understand what information is collected via smartphone apps. Meanwhile, use your own devices, so you don't run afoul of company policies by logging time on corporate devices for personal use.
Being able to better control our privacy "is a reasonable thing to ask for," says Chaudhry. "Consumers have to come forward with a common front."
This story originally published on Mashable here.