2012 Campaign Big Data Wins While Privacy Rights Suffer


There’s a lot of people recovering from their post-Thanksgiving food comas today, but there’s another post-gluttony story going on right now that has many people concerned. The 2012 Presidential election is noted as one of the biggest Big Data stories of the year, capped by a masterful data operation that concluded with the re-election of President Obama. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns consumed troves of personal data at a tremendous rate. Just recently some reports pointed to the Democrat party re-utilizing that operation to focus on other elections. A Washington Times story this week puts a spotlight on the usage of the data that was collected and how it was being handled.

Had it been Facebook and Google, a federal investigation might have ensued, and the companies could have suffered significant public relations setbacks and perhaps fines. But the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency most focused on personal privacy, has no jurisdiction over campaigns or political groups.

That is a small example of what privacy advocates say is a big problem with efforts to protect personal information in the United States: The politicians are not guarding the chicken coop. They are the foxes.

While it may concern many when their personal information is sold, shared, or traded, there appears to be a significant mishandling of personal identifying information by both campaigns that has some on high alert. A Stanford grad student named Jonathan Mayer posted extensive leaks of personal identifiable information in both campaigns. His main finding in the report is that while officials had stated that tracking information was completely anonymous, this was incorrect and he had in fact produced extensive points where information ‘leakage’ had actually produced extensive information about private citizens. Upon reviewing Mayer’s post, it is clear that there are some very egregious instances of careless data handling throughout the public campaign sites. The question lingers that when something put into public about the public is this bad and is characterized as anonymous, how certain are they of the handling of data elsewhere.

But, in my view, the greatest takeaway is that the myth of web tracking’s anonymity has proven remarkably resilient—despite compelling research results and practical experience to the contrary. Companies and trade groups in the tracking business community frequently invoke unfounded claims of anonymity. Policymakers, website operators, and journalists all-too-often repeat those claims—even, apparently, when they’re of the highest caliber.

Earlier this week, Kristen Nicole tackled topics on the intersection of Big Data and civil rights. The issues of privacy and regulation in these matters are of critical importance as willingly or not, we are all being encapsulated into data in every aspect of our lives. Even still, the United States ranks far behind in privacy compared to Europe in terms of what information is collected and how long it can be stored. Monetizing data is a big driver however and we will see a definite presence of industry versus privacy in the years to come. After all, many people still willingly give up their online behavior information to services like Google and Facebook without ever questioning what is being done with this information at all, and they do so because the services are on the surface – “free”.

The public is now aware of the considerable amount of data that the campaigns have collected in this election year, across numerous social and technological avenues.  We are now becoming aware that some of this information has been loosely protected and we have indications that the same information and more will be used again.  All of this without any significant assurance that the data is not being used carelessly elsewhere, to what ends, and who actually owns that data now.