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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

“If you sign up for a particular cause or issue, that organization is likely telling you that they intend to share that information with ‘like-minded’ organizations, and you will end up on the mailing list for multiple causes,” she said.

Hall agreed. “If you donate to a campaign, one of the first things you see – and will see periodically after that – is a ‘We'd like to get to know you better!’ survey,” he said, adding that they will seek information on things like gun ownership and views on abortion, “that the campaign can't easily infer or purchase from other sources.”

He said even when voters volunteer that information, he is not sure they understand that it is used to get, “highly granular information about the voters for targeting, and in a number of cases this year, to get information about households around a given voter's address that might not be as forthcoming or politically involved, such as, ‘Do you know if any of your neighbors are gun owners too?’”

Ansorge said he thinks it would not be too difficult to create laws to limit data collection, especially governing presidential campaigns. “Candidates would self-discipline and would not want to create the potential scandal of their campaign being identified as law-breaking.”

He said voters could decide to give more of their personal information to the campaign they support – “we could think of it as donating your data,” he said – but the choice would be up to them.

Given the detail of the data collected, there is general agreement that there should be regulations on destroying it after a campaign ends.

Hay recommended that the U.S. adopt something like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, “specifically the Right to Erasure (right to be forgotten) language.

“If, as a citizen, I give consent to my data being collected and used in this manner I should also have the right to request what has been collected and the right to have it erased,” he said.


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