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Very Creepy' Details of Obama Campaign's Voter Data-Mining Effort


"I think everyone finds it creepy."

Mother Jones, the same site that leaked the recent videos of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a private fundraising event, has a profile detailing the data being collected on voters for the re-election of President Barack Obama by his campaign staff.

As Gizmodo puts it, it is a "huge" effort to a "very creepy degree" that could be collecting more information than you might expect.

The Mother Jones piece is primarily a profile on Harper Reed, the chief technology officer for the Obama re-election campaign, who heads a team described as "100 data scientists, developers, engineers, analysts, and old-school hackers [that] have been transforming the way politicians acquire data—and what they do with it."

Mother Jones reports that the Obama campaign gets its voter information from the following sources (emphasis added):

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 fifth source, the increasingly powerful email lists, track which blasts you respond to, the links you click on, and whether you unsubscribe.

By pulling together databases, analysts are tracking trends and targeting these emails specifically to voters' tastes. There are also apps, which TheBlaze has reported on before, that door-to-door canvassers can use to get more information about voters before speaking with them.

Mother Jones also points out the usefulness of social media to glean information on voters., for example, began taking information from Facebook on users when they logged on through their social media account. It states that users consented to the data harvesting first.

These are just some of the ways data is collected.

Mother Jones doesn't leave Romney out of the mix either. It makes a comparison between the data-mining efforts of the two, finding that Romney has hired more consultants to work on this front while Obama has more actual team members. It reports Zac Moffatt, digital director of Romney's campaign, targeting "off the grid" voters -- those who might not watch TV or would zip through commercials on shows they recorded.

"In terms of just the sheer amount of data that political candidates have on you, I think everyone finds it creepy," Daniel Kreiss, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor who wrote the book "Taking Our Country Back," told Mother Jones.

Still, many would point out what the candidates are doing in terms of data mining is not so different than what Facebook, Google or other commercial entities do to best target ads or learn more about users.

But how important is such detailed data to best tailor candidates' messages in an election? With close elections such as those seen in recent decades, former director of technology at the Democratic National Committee Josh Hendler told Mother Jones the "quality of data" could be the difference between winning and losing.

Read the whole of the Mother Jones piece here. Mother Jones' Tim Murphy who authored the profile also put together this flow chart -- Stalk the Vote -- to show how data is collected.

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