Law in the Internet Society

The threats of data-driven political campaigns on voter privacy

-- By JeanBaptisteLeca - 04 Nov 2016

In Franchise, a 1955 science fiction story taking place in a future United States, Isaac Asimov describes a country where the outcome of presidential elections is determined by a powerful computer using statistics and data analysis. Only one ‘representative’ person is necessary to complete the computer estimation, rendering democratic elections worthless. In the light of the latest campaigns, it seems that Asimov had accurately foreseen the increasing role of database politics in determining electoral outcomes.The growing use of profiling and targeting strategies by political campaigners is frequently justified as a way to encourage voter turnout. Although it is true that voters benefit from the rise of cyber-campaigning in a number of ways — as it provides an easy access to political information as well as an increased depth of contents — there is a thin line between getting people to vote and trying to change their mind.

The Rise of Campaign Data Practices

From e-Commerce to e-Campaign

The rapid improvements in database technologies went hand in hand with the development of e-commerce and online advertising as they made it possible to track consumer behavior online in an ever more precise way. Those various profiling techniques, such as clickstream analysis, allowed private companies to record a wide range of information such as the geographic location, the date and precise time of a Web site visit as well as the type of computer and software that were used. It then became an easy task to assess individuals browsing habits. The use of cookies, most notably, made it possible for a website to provide companies with Internet users information in exchange of buying advertising space.

It did not take long before such improvements played into the hands of political campaigners, operating a shift from targeting consumers to targeting voters. One of the pioneers in this field was Aristotle International who successfully incorporated profiling marketing practices to the political sphere. The consulting company’s database became one of the most comprehensive at the time, offering a list of up to 150 millions voters’ profiles and including a great amount of details — from their names, telephone numbers and addresses to their political affiliation, voting frequency, income, employers and types of cars. Aristotle’s voter lists have proved very popular among Senate, House, and even Presidential candidates.

The Development of Database Politics

A further step was taken in 2002 when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Drafted in reaction to the 2000 controversial recount in Florida, HAVA accelerated the digitalization of the voting process by requiring states to hold a « single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive computerized voter registration list ». According to Eitan Hersh, HAVA laid the ground for voter targeting and profiling as it provided political parties with a complete and updated list of all voters in the United States.

Along state voters’ registration databases, today’s political campaigners have access to a wide range of sources when searching for voter data. Among them is donor data. In fact, candidates for federal office are required to report the names, addresses and occupations of donors of $200 or more. In the digital area, such information are now easily accessible in electronic form. Campaign websites have also become an efficient tool as the Obama website has proved to be during the 2012 presidential campaign by attracting more than 8 millions visitors. Just like any other commercial websites, each and every interaction made by campaign websites visitors is scrutinized and analyzed in order to infer as much information as possible. Eventually, given how intertwined people’s lives are now with digital platforms— such as social networks of all kinds — collecting voter data appears to be increasingly easy. As an illustration, Facebook has recently set out a service allowing campaigners to reach users who like and share political content.

Those new forms of data set out a different understanding of the political world. It led to the development of new ways of identifying voters — grouped together in scores reflecting their habits — and new ways of interacting with them — through targeting messages or niche medias. These evolutions which are not exposed to the view of political press are often underestimated by campaign reporters.

The Dangers of Political Profiling and Targeting

The Harm on Political Privacy

Political privacy is commonly referred as the cornerstone of any strong democracy. Back in the time where secret ballot voting was not yet guaranteed, parties could easily identify and intimidate voters. The reform was adopted by most of the states by the early 1890s. Ironically, this fundamental right is, a century later, threatened by the combination of cyber-campaigning and electoral politics. The risk of invading people’s political privacy is that it could undermine their ability to develop and express their views and identity. This space is necessary for citizens to develop their own critical thinking and judgment, without the fear to be punished if their opinions are different from those of the norm.

Another consequence of such campaign data practices is the hyper-segmentation of the public sphere. Individuals receiving highly personalized messages lose sight of the complexity of social issues. On the other way, some citizens are excluded from the flow of information as they are considered unlikely to vote. People in most in need of political information are then deprived from it.

The Lack of Proper Regulation

Privacy regulation protects ‘Personally Identifiable Information’ (PII), which constitutes data that is linked to individuals. The problem concerning voter registration data comes from its dual status. In fact, it can qualify both as PII and as public records. In other words, even though such data is theoretically subject to privacy law, it has to be available to the public. Regulating this area is thus a matter of degree which requires to balance privacy and transparency. Up to now, the balance had tended to work against voters’ privacy as lawmakers have no interest in cutting themselves off from those precious information which can ensure their reelection. As Pr. Hersh has noted: « Ironically, laws ostensibly passed to help private citizens track the government’s action turn out to be laws that help political campaigns track private citizens ».

An alternative solution could have been found in the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as the goals it pursues meet the interests of voters. However, FEC rules, set out in the middle of the 1970s, are not adequate in the context of the new media environnement in the digital age. As it was already mentioned concerning donor data, FEC regulations actually deter individuals from engaging in politics as they fear they could give access to private information. The modernization of FEC rules as well as a better understanding of those issues among the population would be a way to push for a change from the bottom-up.


Why are these endnotes in writing for the Web? Link your sources to the statements they substantiate, so that readers can confirm what you say and have the easiest time reading further for themselves.

This is a useful summary of others' writing, but it doesn't contain any idea of your own. The primary route to improvement is to take this material and build on it, presenting your new thinking atop the base provided in this draft. You don't need a science-fiction point of departure, and the present conclusory remarks about FEC, which is an agency structured to be permanently in partisan deadlock and not ever to do anything, are merely naive. How the First Amendment rights of candidates and campaigns to learn, think, and speak are to be overridden by controls on campaign use of consumer data I cannot fathom, and you haven't tried to address. Some thought on that subject before undertaking the next draft might also be a good idea. Naturally, the actual results of the 2016 Presidential election in the United States might also be relevant and worth commenting on.


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r3 - 28 Nov 2016 - 13:03:54 - EbenMoglen
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