Mining online data to sway voters

A few weeks before the US polls, Thomas Goddard, a community college student in Santa Clara, California, and a devoted supporter of President Barack Obama, clicked on to check out the candidate’s position on abortion.

Then, as he visited other websites, he started seeing advertisements asking him to donate to Mitt Romney’s campaign. One mentioned family values, he said, and seemed aimed at someone with more conservative leanings.

“It didn’t make any sense,” Goddard said. “I’m the opposite of a Romney supporter. But after I went to the Romney site, they followed me closely.”

One of the hallmarks of the just concluded campaign for the US presidency was the use of increasingly sophisticated – but not always accurate – data-mining techniques to customise ads for voters based on the digital trails they left as they visited Internet sites.
It is a practice pioneered by online retailers who work with third-party information resellers to create detailed portraits of consumers to show them relevant marketing pitches. Goddard, for example, may have received those Romney ads because of “retargeting” software designed to show people ads for certain sites or products they had previously viewed.

Towards the election’s final weeks, both presidential campaigns drastically increased their use of such third-party surveillance engines, according to Evidon, a company that helps businesses and consumers monitor and control third-party tracking software.
Over the month of September, Evidon identified 76 tracking programs on – two more trackers than it found on Best Buy’s website – compared with 53 in May. It found 40 trackers on last month, compared with 25 in May.

The report provides a rare glimpse into the number of third-party tracking programs that were operating on the campaign websites – as many as or more than on some of the most popular retailers’ sites.

The campaigns directly hired some companies, like ad agencies or data management firms, that marry information collected about voters on a campaign site with data about them from other sources. But these entities, in turn, may have brought their own software partners to the sites to perform data-mining activities like retargeting voters or tracking the political links they shared with their social networks.

Consumer advocates say the proliferation of these trackers raised the risk that information about millions of people’s political beliefs could spread to dozens of business-to-business companies whose names many voters have never even heard.

There is growing concern that the campaigns or third-party trackers may later use that voter data for purposes the public never imagined, like excluding someone from a job offer based on his or her past political affiliations.

“Is the data going to be sold to marketers or shared with other campaigns?” said Christopher Calabrese, the legislative counsel for privacy-related issues at the American Civil Liberties Union. “We simply don’t know how this information is going to be used in the future and where it is going to end up.”

Evidon offers a free program called Ghostery that people can use to identify third-party trackers on the sites they visit. On October 18 the program identified 19 trackers on the Obama website and 12 on the Romney site.

Evidon executives said the tracking companies on the campaign sites included services that collected details about people’s online behaviour in order to help mould ads to their political concerns and companies that recorded user behaviour so they could analyse the effectiveness of sites.

The privacy policies on the campaigns’ websites acknowledge that they work with third parties that may collect user data. But officials with both campaigns emphasised that such data collection was “anonymous” because third-party companies use code numbers, not real names, to track site visitors.

Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the Oama campaign, said the website did not allow its partners to share data collected from visitors with other clients or use it for other purposes like marketing consumer goods.

“We are committed to protecting individual privacy and employ strong safeguards to protect personal information,” Fetcher wrote in an email. “We do not provide any personal information to outside entities, and we stipulate that third-party partners not use data collected on the site for other purposes.”

In response to a reporter’s query about whether the Romney site placed limitations on the collection or use of voter data by its partners, Ryan Williams, a campaign spokesman, wrote in an email: “The Romney campaign respects the privacy rights of all Americans. We are committed to ensuring that all of our voter outreach is governed by the highest ethical standards.”

Evidon compiled the statistics on campaign tracking by aggregating data from a panel of about 7 million volunteers who use its Ghostery program.

From May to September, Evidon identified 97 tracking programs – “far more than the average site employs,” a company report said – on the Obama and Romney sites combined. (Some trackers appeared on both sites.) Privacy advocates say such personalisation raised questions about transparency.

“Individual voters may not have been aware that the message they were getting was based on information that had been gleaned about their activities around the Web and was precisely targeted to them,” said Calabrese of the ACLU. “It may have been a private message just for me but that was not the type of statement the campaigns made publicly.”

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