Dear political campaigns: Just leave me the &%#*! alone

You may not be able to stop political junk mail, spam, or robocalls, but you can slow them down. Here's how.

There are less than 20 days left in our election cycle, but it feels more like 200. I don’t know about you, but between TV ads, junk mail hit pieces, political spam, volunteers knocking at my doors, and robo calls for or against one candidate or another, I’m about ready to go postal. I’m sure the residents of Massachusetts, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania feel likewise.

As The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart implored the other night, “Please God, make it stop.” But Jon is appealing to the wrong deity. This is clearly the work of Satan. And the devil has no interest in leaving us alone this close to the first Tuesday in November.

As the New York Times’ Charles Duhigg noted in a report last week, both presidential campaigns are amassing more data about us from more sources than ever before, and they are using it in more insidious ways.

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. The campaigns themselves, according to campaign employees, have examined voters’ online exchanges and social networks to see what they care about and whom they know. ….

The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return tomittromney.com or barackobama.com.

What are they doing with all that data? They’re using it to target you with very specific campaign pitches. And I do mean you, Mr. loves the Boston Red Sox, hates clam chowder, shops at Target, drinks Red Bull, and Likes Honey Boo Boo’s Facebook fan page.

At this point it’s too late to get these a****s to stop harassing us. But there ways you can limit some of the information the campaigns get about you the next time round. Let’s start with the presidential campaign Web sites where, frankly, the news isn’t very good.

The Obama campaign Web site has an impressively detailed privacy policy that covers virtually every contingency you could imagine. The policies themselves, however: Not so impressive. The campaign collects vast amounts of information from a wide range of sources, attaches it to your identity, and shares it “with candidates, organizations, groups or causes that we believe have similar political viewpoints, principles or objectives.”

In other words, they can share it with pretty much anyone they feel like. (That would explain all the spam I’m getting in my inbox from candidates I’ve never heard of.)

Want to opt out of this data collection? Tough. You can tell them to stop sending you email or text messages, but you’ll also have to do it for everybody they’ve shared your data with. And there’s no obvious way to remove your information from the massive voter databases the Obama campaign has been compiling.

Romney’s privacy policy, on the other hand, is a model of brevity. But it says almost nothing, and what is in there appears to be wrong. For example, the policy claims to only collect non-personally identifiable data. But the first thing you see when you visit MittRomney.com is a form asking for your email address – which is very much personally identifiable data. Nothing in the policy addresses what happens to that information.

If you’ve signed up for MyMitt, you can ask the campaign to please not use your name in its promotional materials, but the email address it provides for opting out doesn’t work. I sent a message to it and got a response saying that email address is “not monitored for incoming mail.” Nice.

The policies for both parties’ national committees are no better. Like the two presidential candidates, the DNC and GOP share your information with other “like minded” organizations and offer only an email or texting opt out.

The problem? When it comes to privacy, political data gets a free pass under the law, notes Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“When Congress passes laws like Do Not Call or anti-spam and anti-robocall bills, these laws never apply to political campaigns or nonprofit organizations,” she says. “Political speech receives a higher level of protection than advertising.”

So what can you do to fight this?

* Provide the bare minimum of information when you register to vote. This information is required to be public by law, and there are good reasons for that. But a lot of forms ask for information that isn’t strictly mandatory (like your email address), so don’t volunteer information that isn’t required. Consider using a PO Box as an address, if you don’t mind traveling out of your precinct to vote.

* Use tools like Google Voice to screen your calls, so you can head off robocalls before they really start to annoy you, says Shaun Dakin, principal of Dakin & Associates and CEO of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, Stop Political Calls. Dakin says more than 500,000 people have signed up for his site, which provides the names and numbers of those who’ve asked to opt out of calls to any politician who requests it. (So far only a handful have.)

* If you want to volunteer or contribute to a candidate, use the old anti-spam trick and create a disposable email address for that purpose and no other. Use a free online phone number too instead of your personal number, if you can. That will make it harder for campaigns to tie your consumer data to its records, and it will also allow you to track who else they shared your data with.

* Opt out of consumer databases maintained by massive data mining companies like LexisNexis, Intelius, and Acxiom. They provide a lot of the information the campaigns are collecting. You can usually find instructions on how to do this in each company’s privacy policy. They make this process deliberately onerous to discourage you from doing it, but it is possible.

(Last July the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus sent letters to nine of the biggest data miners, asking them what they know about us and when they knew it. We’re all still waiting for their responses.)

* You can ask your state to suppress or mask your voter registration information, which will keep it out of the data sold to campaigns by companies like Aristotle.

This can be a difficult thing to do. Rules for doing this vary widely from state to state, but you can typically only do this in extreme circumstances – like you’re a victim of domestic violence and need to shield your address from an abusive spouse, or you’re a cop who doesn’t want criminals with a vendetta showing up on his doorstep. Start with your State Board of Elections to see if this is possible and what you need to do.

The amount of data collected by the campaigns is yet more evidence that we need a consumer privacy bill of rights, as proposed by the Obama administration last February, says Coney. But that alone isn’t enough. We also need the ability to see what data campaigns have collected about us and how they’re using it, as well as the ability to say “No thanks.”

When the dust settles on Wednesday, November 7 (at least, I hope it’s settled by then – I don’t think my heart could take a replay of Bush-Gore 2000), the question becomes: What happens to all this data?

“Does that data go away?” asks Coney. “Does it get inherited by the candidate’s political party? Is it passed on as currency to the next candidate? Will it be brokered to third parties?”

And once political candidates have used data mining to predict how we’ll vote, what’s to keep commercial companies from doing the same things to predict what brand of toothpaste we’ll buy or what cars we secretly crave? Nothing, says Coney.

“This is going to be a part of life as we know it going forward,” she says.

Unless, of course, we manage to elect someone willing to do something about it. What are the odds?

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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