Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a creepy-licious story about how the Obama and Romney campaigns are gobbling up personal data about voters as part of an effort to make targeted appeals for support — and even to shame people into going to the polls. The information they're acquiring isn't just mile-high data of the sort that's been used in the past to maximize the use of resources on targets of opportunity; it includes details about purchases, friends and family and Web-surfing habits. Yes, the campaigns want to know everything about you so they can make as personal — and really well-informed — an appeal as possible.
From the Times:
In the weeks before Election Day, millions of voters will hear from callers with surprisingly detailed knowledge of their lives. These callers — friends of friends or long-lost work colleagues — will identify themselves as volunteers for the campaigns or independent political groups.
The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people — or computers — with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.
Where are they getting this information? Much of it is already available, at least in fragmentary form, for a price.
[C]onsultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems. The campaigns themselves, according to campaign employees, have examined voters’ online exchanges and social networks to see what they care about and whom they know. They have also authorized tests to see if, say, a phone call from a distant cousin or a new friend would be more likely to prompt the urge to cast a ballot.
For social network data, the campaigns seem to be accessing the connections of volunteers who log into their own accounts and offer up their friends and loved ones for the glory of the cause. Data-mining software makes it an easy task.
The campaigns are getting even more technical and intrusive than that, however. They're also looking into Internet habits in a way that may convince you to set your browser security to "cloaking device."
The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to mittromney.com or barackobama.com. The campaigns’ consultants have run experiments to determine if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online is effective.
The mention of shaming voters into casting ballots is confined here to voting habits. That is, the campaigns may start calling out people they see as potential supporters who have been less-than-diligent in exercising that all-important franchise. But the danger of other sorts of political arm-twisting, implicit or explicit, seems fairly ... impressive with all of that data in hand.
The tactic would also seem to have huge potential for blowback. A political party or campaign may be able compile all sorts of embarrassing data on voters, and even wield it to drive people to take an active role, at least so far as voting goes. But those people, protected by the still-secret (for now) ballot, could well be expected to punish their tormenters.
That stalker ex can make your life hell, for a while. But doesn't it always come at the price of really pissing you off?