Is the new Obama campaign app violating voter privacy?

The Obama for America app shows you the names, addresses, and ages of nearby Democrats -- and even some Obamanistas are unhappy about that.

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Is your neighbor a Democrat, Republican, or Independent? If his lawn signs don’t give that away, a free iPhone app from the Obama campaign just might.

The Obama for America app is for volunteers who are willing to go door to door to register voters, recruit other volunteers, and get out the vote. You can also use it to donate money, tweet out your support,  or otherwise pitch in for the good fight (or the bad one, depending on your point of view).

To help get out the vote, the app uses your phone’s GPS coordinates and pulls data from the state elections board about registered voters in your area. For example, click the Canvass button, and the app determines your location and displays a map showing you the first name and last initial of  registered Democrats within walking distance, along with their address, gender, and age.

Screenshot borrowed with gratitude from Pro Publica.

The idea is to identify likely Obama voters and get them riled up enough to leave their homes about 92 days from now and vote.  But this level of data disclosure makes some privacy wonks rather hot under the collar.

Shortly after the Obamanistas released the app, Shaun Dakin, CEO of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, StopPoliticalCalls.org, sent me the following email:

“There is NO Reason why the app needs to show this information to the public for canvassing purposes. Now I know the age of my neighbors, I know if they are likely Dems, and there is no way to opt out of being part of the system (as far as I can tell). This is a Total Privacy Fail.”

My response was somewhat less agitated, for the following reason: Legally, the Obama app is not violating anyone’s privacy. All of the information inside it is in the public record. And there are good reasons for that.

When you show up to vote, the kindly blue-haired old lady who checks you in at the polling place needs to a) know that you’re old enough to vote, b) know you’re in the same precinct where you’re registered, c) make sure she hands you the right ballot, assuming it’s a primary election in a state that doesn’t allow crossover voting.

(Note: The poll workers in my hood are invariably blue haired; your hairage may vary.)

Technically she doesn’t need to know your gender, but one assumes she can make a pretty educated guess. But every state makes at least some of its voter registration data public, though the amount and type of data varies; some states even make it searchable online.

The other thing to remember is all this app really does is put a tool into the hands of any iPhone user that the Republicans have been using since at least 2004, via their Voter Vault database (now called GOP Data Center). The Democrat’s answer to that is called VoteBuilder.

Political parties typically have much more data than what’s contained in the Obama app, because they combine voter registration records with household income and other demographic info sold by data clearinghouse services like Aristotle Online.

Then there’s also Votizen, a social network that allows you to share your political endorsements with thousands of strangers on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. That, at least, is voluntary. If you don’t want strangers to know who you’re voting for, you don’t have to sign up for Votizen.

Fact is, there’s a ton of pretty personal information contained in public records databases which technology has suddenly made extremely accessible. That freaks people out, and understandably so. But the problem isn’t the technology, per se, it’s the laws that make these records public.

And some records are public for good reasons. You want to know who owns that parcel of land by the river that the city is considering buying with your tax dollars, especially if it turns out one of the owners is the Mayor. That same law also allows anyone to look up your address and find out who owns your house, along with its estimated value and property taxes. The same goes for other private property like boats.

It’s an uneasy but necessary compromise between the public’s right to know and a person’s right to remain private. Where should we draw the line? Good question. What do you think?

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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