Politics vs privacy: Heads they win, tails you lose

If this political season has proven one thing, it's that neither the Obama nor the Romney campaigns give a damn about your personal privacy.

At this point in this especially insane political season there’s still no telling who will end up winning it all next Tuesday. But it’s very clear to me who has already lost: You and me. More specifically, we've lost what little personal privacy we may once have had.

The amount and scope of data collection employed by both presidential campaigns this year is unprecedented. Both sides have been hoovering up data about voters using every means possible: mobile apps, online tracking, public records databases, third-party demographics clearinghouses, and data mining on social networks. And it looks like this is how political campaigns will be conducted from now on.

Last week I wrote about how generous the Obama and Romney privacy policies are when it comes to sharing our personal information, and what you can do to opt out of that (ie, not much). But that’s really only the tip of the databerg.

Take, for example, the Obama For America app. It extracts public voter registration records and overlays them on a map, so you can see the names and addresses of likely Democratic voters within a half mile of your location, along with their age and gender. Yes, this is totally legal; the records are public, after all. But OFA also makes it pretty easy to stalk strangers – say, young women with whom you share a political affiliation. Creepy? Just a little.

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Screenshot borrowed with gratitude from Pro Publica.

Or take the GOP’s Project ORCA Web app. Come election day, some 34,000 Republican poll watchers will be using the app to record the names of every person who shows up to vote, which will then be relayed to local campaign headquarters. Presumably those who fail to show up at the polls will get a phone call urging them to vote (at least, some of them will). Inside the packet given to each ORCA volunteer is a PDF containing the names of every person registered to vote at their particular precinct. A volunteer in Virginia shared his PDF file with me; the list of names was more than 50 pages long.

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So when you go to vote, some stranger will be standing there eyeballing you to determine if you look Republican and ticking you off a list. I find that a bit creepy too, don’t you?

[Update: Two days after casting my ballot early, I got an an email from the Obama campaign: "We see you voted early, Dan...." So clearly the Obamaniacs are watching me too, only from a little further away.]

It’s not just the candidates. The super PACs are getting into it as well. I installed the Vote Early 2012 Facebook app from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads political action committee to see what it would do. Mostly what it seems to do is mine my Facebook profile for information.

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Ever since then, I’ve been seeing a heckovalot more pro-Romney ads show up on my Facebook news feed. Are these two things related? Hard to say.

The worst data collection, however, is the kind that goes on invisibly as you surf. Visit either candidate’s Web site and your browser will quickly be festooned with dozens of trackers that will follow you around the Web.

Evidon, the folks behind the Ghostery browser add-on and the Ad Choices program, released a report last week detailing the number and types of online trackers used by the campaign Web sites. Using data gathered from more than 7 million Ghostery users, Evidon found that the number of trackers used by both parties has more than doubled over the past six months, and that the Obamanistas use almost twice as many trackers as the Romneyans.

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As Evidon blogger Andy Kahl notes:

Instead of managing their campaign websites as though they were traditional content sites, both campaigns are managing them as though they were sophisticated online commerce sites.  This anonymous tracking of users across the web empowers the campaigns to target them with advertising messages to win their vote the way an e-commerce provider targets consumers to win a transaction.

Of course, that information costs money. In a campaign whose total cost may exceed $6 billion, many hundreds of millions have been spent on obtaining and refining data.

Abine, makers of the Do Not Track Plus browser app, have launched a Web-based calculator that lets you determine exactly how much your vote is worth in real dollars. It’s essentially identical to the Val-You Calculator Abine launched last May about how much you’re worth to Facebook, only the questions and weighting are a bit different.

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If you’re a male in a nonswing state who doesn’t spend a lot of time online and votes regularly, your vote may be worth as little as $5, says the luminous and compelling Sarah A. Downey of Abine. If you’re a first-time female voter in a hotly contested state like Ohio with a lot of Facebook friends, you could be worth as much as $50.

“You’re worth more to the campaigns if you’ve never voted before,” says Downey. “To them that means you’re fresh meat and thus easier to influence.”

Meat is right. After the last six months of political news, lies, analysis, debates, fact checks, spinning, and spam, I feel like I’ve been tenderized to a pulp and fed through a grinder.

My only solace: In five days it will all be over. Then we’ll have a blessed four years before we have to do it all over again.

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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