By Dave Levinthal | Politico | Mar. 16, 2012
President Barack Obama wants companies like Google and Facebook to reform their privacy practices.
But that’s not stopping his reelection campaign from tapping the rich data Internet companies hold on millions of potential voters.
Obama for America has already invested millions of dollars in sophisticated Internet messaging, marketing and fundraising efforts that rely on personal data sometimes offered up voluntarily — like posts on a Facebook page— but sometimes not.
And according to a campaign official and former Obama staffer, the campaign’s Chicago-based headquarters has built a centralized digital database of information about millions of potential Obama voters.
It all means Obama is finding it easier than ever to merge offline data, such as voter files and information purchased from data brokers, with online information to target people with messages that may appeal to their personal tastes. Privacy advocates say it’s just the sort of digital snooping that his new privacy project is supposed to discourage.
But this is what campaigning for president looks like in 2012. Gone are the days when campaigns cataloged voters and their preferences with index cards and filing cabinets. It’s even a quantum leap forward from 2008, when campaigns struggled to link individual voters across databases. And Republican presidential candidates are using some of the same high-tech tools.
There’s an added twist for Obama: He’s making these moves at the same moment his administration is pushing the virtues of online privacy, last month proposing a consumer bill of rights to protect it.
“All of the data used to be in different silos. You never had a central place,” said Dan Siroker, a former director of analytics for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and deputy new media director for his presidential transition team who now runs online marketing optimization firm Optimizely. “That’s different this election.”
Both Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee declined to discuss how they specifically gather or use personal information.
But an Obama campaign official stressed that the campaign and DNC, which actively works to reelect Obama, meticulously protect personal data.
“This campaign has always and will continue to be an organization that respects and takes care to protect information that people share with us,” Obama for America spokeswoman Katie Hogan said. “We go to great lengths to make sure that supporters have the ability to opt out of communication and contact from the campaign.”
It also states that the campaign “may also collect information about the type of mobile device you use, your device’s unique ID, the type of mobile Internet browsers you use and information about the location of your device.”
For some privacy advocates, the data disconnect between Obama’s administration and campaign is tantamount to hypocrisy.
And it comes as lawmakers, regulators, companies and privacy advocates are arguing over the very meaning of online tracking and what kinds of personal information should at least be legal, if not easy, to gather.