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Big Data and elections: The candidates know you – better than you know them

Taylor Armerding | July 15, 2016
Most political campaigns emphasize providing information – carefully controlled information – about a candidate to voters. But in the era of Big Data, they are also collecting information about voters – with little or no control, consent or security

When it is correlated with information gathered from contacts, then, “calls or visits inform the campaign how an individual is tending to vote.”

There is an elemental universalism to democracy that is undermined by these kind of practices.

josef ansorge
Josef (Joey) Ansorge, New York attorney and author of Identify & Sort

This, he said, lets campaigns create “micro” groups of voters, the most important of which is those considered “sway-able.” Obviously, that is the group the campaigns will try the hardest to influence.

But such detail about people’s lives, preferences and opinions – even their personal health – also raises both privacy and security concerns. How many people have access to it? How well is it being protected from online attacks? Will it be discarded after the election is over, or kept indefinitely? Could it be used by those who get elected and want to track those who supported their opponent?

Ansorge has a problem with using Big Data to send very different messages to different groups. “There is an elemental universalism to democracy that is undermined by these kind of practices,” he said, adding that he thinks voters ought to be made aware of how campaigns feed them information based on their profiles.

Andrew Hay, CISO of DataGravity, said he is not overly concerned about the collection of voter data itself, or even the tweaking of the message. “Candidates have a lot of information to remember, and the analysis of data simply helps them match the needs and wants of clusters of voters to a particular message,” he said.

But he said data security and governance is crucial. “I'm less concerned about the government keeping a ‘burn list’ of clusters of voters and more concerned with the protection, retention, and destruction of the data collected,” he said. “This includes raw data as well as any derived analysis from said data.”

I'm less concerned about the government keeping a ‘burn list’ of clusters of voters and more concerned with the protection, retention, and destruction of the data collected.

andrew hay
Andrew Hay, CISO, DataGravity

That is also the view of Brenda Leong, senior counsel and director of operations at the Future of Privacy Forum. Big data analytics offers, “great new ways to engage with voters on the things that really matter to them, which results in more motivated, and hopefully better informed, participants in the electoral process, and likely higher turnouts on election day,” she said.

But she said “proper handling of the data” is not always easy for campaigns that tend to ramp up quickly from nothing to, “multi-million-dollar – even billion-dollar – enterprises, made up with large sections of volunteers or temporary staff. 

 

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