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Political Campaigns In The USA: Privacy And Security Issues

The Los Angeles Times provided a good primer about the privacy issues in the political system in the United States:

"... data for politics is not a new phenomenon. Presidential candidates began pioneering the approach more than a decade ago, and it was a key part of Barack Obama’s winning strategy in 2008 and 2012. But technological advancements, plunging storage costs and a proliferation of data firms have substantially increased the ability of campaigns to inhale troves of strikingly personal information about voters... as presidential campaigns push into a new frontier of voter targeting, scouring social media accounts, online browsing habits and retail purchasing records of millions of Americans, they have brought a privacy imposition unprecedented in politics. By some estimates, political candidates are collecting more personal information on Americans than even the most aggressive retailers... The campaigns and the data companies are cagey about what particular personal voter details they are trafficking in..."

Reportedly, one firm collected 500 data elements about each voter. That means, they know a lot about you.

What might those data elements be? Let's use as an example, since many consumers use the social networking services. If you are a member, you can see for yourself. Sign into your account with a web browser, select SETTINGS and then ADS. You'll see a page that looks similar to this:

Image of Facebook Ad Settings page. Click to view larger image

Chances are, your account settings were preset to automatically display targeted advertisements based upon your interests (e.g., what you "Liked," posted about, friends' posts you commented upon, even when you don't click "Like" buttons, music and fitness apps linked to your account, edited and unpublished posts, etc.). I'd already modified my account settings to suppress targeted ads, but that doesn't stop the data collection. Now, select the EDIT link next to "Ads based upon my preferences." When prompted, select the "View Ad Preferences" button. You will see a page that looks similar to this:

Image of Facebook Ad Preferences Categories page. Click to view larger image

Facebook has neatly arranged your preferences into several categories: Education, People, News and Entertainment, Travel, and more. Click on any category to view the items for that category. After selecting the "Lifestyle and Culture" category, I saw this:

Image of Facebook Lifestyle and Culture Ad Preferences view. Click to view larger image

You can click on each item to see details about that item. You can also mouseover an item to display a button to toggle on or off each item. That tells Facebook to either display or suppress targeted advertisements to you about that item. (I turned 95 percent of mine off.) If you "Like" the Facebook page for a specific brand, product, service, newspaper, organization, event, or person then the site is happy to catalog that and serve targeted ads from that entity, or other companies in that category.

This provides a huge clue as to the data elements Facebook has collected and shared with data brokers and its partners. Chances are, some of this information has already made its way via data brokers into the databases of political campaigns. You can read in this blog about data brokers and tech companies that have assisted social networking sites.

I've used as an example to highlight for consumers the data elements. The above images make it real. Data collected by social networking sites is so valuable, at least one credit reporting agency wanted it. As The Los Angeles reported:

"The data companies are required by law to keep the names of individuals separate from the pile of data accumulated about them. Instead, each voter is assigned an online identification number, and when a campaign wants to target a particular group – say, drivers of hybrid vehicles or gun owners – the computers coordinate a robocall, or a volunteer’s canvassing list, or a digital advertisement with relevant accounts. Since campaigns are ultimately in the business of finding particular people and getting them to show up to vote, some scholars are dubious their digital targeting efforts offer the same level of anonymity as those of corporations."

So, campaigns will re-assign names to information the data brokers have supposedly anonymized. Are you happy with that? Are you happy with political campaigns knowing this much about you? Are you confident that political campaigns adequately protect your personal information? Do you believe that you should have some say in what political campaigns collect and archive about you? Do you want control over your personal information?

Again, from the Los Angeles Times article:

"There is a tremendous amount of data out there and the question is what types of controls are in place and how secure is it,” said Craig Spiezle, executive director of the nonprofit Online Trust Alliance. The group’s recent audit of campaign websites for privacy, security and consumer protection gave three-quarters of the candidates failing grades... An exhaustive paper [New York University School of Law researcher] Rubenstein recently published on voter privacy found that “political dossiers may be the largest unregulated assemblage of personal data in contemporary American life.” Basic privacy guidelines that apply to other industries don’t appear to apply to candidates. Some do not even have clear privacy policies posted on their websites..."

Now you have an idea of what data is out there about you. If you want to turn off targeted ads displayed by Facebook, you can. You can't stop the data collection though. The data collection, archiving, and resale is part of most social networking sites' business models.

Are political campaigns reselling data to make money? Are you interested in what political campaigns have collected about you? Do you think it's accurate?


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