Last month Mother Jones took an extensive look at how the Obama and Romney campaigns are hoovering up data so that they can target their appeals to the people most willing to listen. As Mojo reporter Tim Murphy writes:
Campaigns typically draw on data from five sources. There's your basic voter file, publicly available information provided by each state, which includes your name, address, and voting record. The party's file, compiled by partisan organizations like VoteBuilder, includes more detailed information. Did you vote in a caucus? Did you show up at a straw poll? Did you volunteer for a candidate? Did you bring snacks to a grassroots meet-up? Did you talk to a canvasser about cap-and-trade? Contribution data, which the campaign compiles itself, includes both public information that campaigns disclose to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and nonpublic data like the names of small-dollar donors.
By the 2000 election, political data firms like Aristotle had begun purchasing consumer data in bulk from companies like Acxiom. Now campaigns didn't just know you were a pro-choice teacher who once gave $40 to save the endangered Rocky Mountain swamp gnat; they also could have a data firm sort you by what type of magazines you subscribed to and where you bought your T-shirts.
The biggest problem with this scheme is not that our privacy is being eviscerated for crass political purposes -- though that's a significant concern. It's that candidates can use this data to appear to be whomever that particular voter would like them to be, then be someone else to the next person, and so on down the line. You could conceivably vote for a person you'd probably hate if you knew all of his or her positions on the issues, unless you were diligent about paying attention and watched the debates instead of the baseball playoffs.
The other problem? The only people who can stop this are those who benefit most: the candidates who are ultimately elected into office. You think they're going to put an end to political data mining? If you believe that malarkey, I have a bridge to sell you.
Got any bridges you'd like to buy or politicians you'd like to mine? Cast your votes below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. And please, try to keep it civil, OK?
This article, "What's in a vote? Only your entire personal profile," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.