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.

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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.

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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