Data Mining for Political Campaigns

The 2014 campaign saw many voters expressing outrage over the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone metadata, with many complaining about retailers using unsavory tactics to access emails and other personal information. But many would agree that the most widespread violation of privacy wasn’t the government or large retailers; it was the political leaders themselves.

These days, data mining is so sophisticated that campaigns can now target voters by combining public records with more personal information from Facebook feeds and consumer reports. They can distill information to identify voters that have stellar credit ratings, but haven’t purchased a car in seven or more years. Another analytical company even wants to get into the political market by selling campaign data that identifies the voters that sought out information on Viagra and other erectile-dysfunction drugs.

While privacy activists and campaign watchdogs are raising concerns, almost everyone in the political establishment of both parties is fighting to avoid any restriction on campaigns over data mining.

Recently, Ann Ravel – incoming chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission – published an opinion in a deadlocked online advertising case declaring a “need to consider the changing role of technology in our elections and recognize how technology is changing our politics.” Instead of support, however, Ravel claims that all she received was threatening online comments and emails.


Waiting for a really good scandal

Privacy activists argue that most voters have no clue that political campaigns are rooting around in their personal data for grocery receipts and club memberships. Most would be surprised to learn about the ever-growing dossiers that their local and national candidates are preparing about them. It is truly a wealth of information that is collected when people make online and in-store purchases, answer surveys, register for loyalty cards, post on social media, or just surf the web in general.

According to Pam Dixon, the founder of the World Privacy Forum, “There’s almost nothing that they won’t know about you – especially if you use credit or debit cards most of the time.

Recently, a 76-page report was published by Ira Rubinstein at the New York University School of Law. The report concluded that political campaigns have “the largest unregulated assemblage of personal data in contemporary American life.” While Rubinstein demanded greater transparency, including mandatory disclosure of all political microtargeting practices, he remains doubtful that anything will be done about it until something really goes awry.

“This whole issue awaits a really good scandal before it becomes a matter of public debate,” Rubenstein commented in an interview.

It seems that voters would be ready to turn their backs on a candidate whose data mining activities are perceived to have gone too far. According to a 2012 poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, 86 percent of respondents didn’t want political campaigns didn’t want tailor-made advertisements. Once people learned that the campaigns were doing just that, large majorities said they would not be as inclined to vote for such politicians.

Unfortunately, candidates and their technology advisers are unmoved. The digital consultants are quick to admit that regulations are unclear and that data mining efforts are a routine part of campaign consultants’ activities.

Data mining has been growing by leaps and bounds in every recent campaign. The most recent 2014 election represented a new peak in activity, as well as the moment when even the most blatant of privacy intrusions became a normal part of developing a campaign.


This article takes a look at the extent to which data mining has become a normal part of political campaigning in the US.

CIPP Exam Preparation                                      

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/US Government (CIPP/G) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Privacy incidents in US government (I.A.b.ii.)
  • US government privacy practices (II.)

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>