Three Things We Don’t Know About Obama’s Massive Voter Database
by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.
The database seems to bring together information about supporters gathered from all branches of the campaign — everything from an individual’s donation records to volunteer activity to online interactions with the campaign — aimed at allowing the campaign to personalize every interaction with potential supporters.
Earlier this month, we built an interactive graphic showing how different Obama supporters received different variations of the same email — one way that the campaign may be using data to personalize messages.
We can’t describe the Obama campaign’s database with certainty because the campaign won’t talk about it. Citing concerns about letting Republicans learn its tactics, the campaign declined our request for comment — as it has with other outlets — about what data the campaign collects and what it’s doing with the data. The campaign did emphasize that, regardless of what information it gathers, it has never sold voter data or shared its voter database with other candidates.
Here’s a guide to what we know — and don’t know — about the information Obama is collecting about voters.
1. What information is the campaign collecting about individual supporters?
We know only some of the data it’s collecting, but it is clearly collecting a lot.
The Obama campaign has hired a corporate data-mining expert, Rayid Ghani, to serve as its “chief scientist.” Ghani has previously researched how to use a retailer’s record of customer purchases to predict what a particular customer will buy during a given shopping trip — the same kind of data crunching that Target has apparently used to predict whether shoppers are pregnant. The campaign is continuing to hire “analytics engineers” and other data experts.
Some of the most important data that campaigns need are already public. State voter files include voters’ names, addresses and voting histories. Campaigns don’t know whom you voted for. But they know when you voted, when you didn’t and, in some states, your race and party registration.
The Obama campaign website asks supporters for basic information, starting with your email address and ZIP code. If you sign up for an account on the site or register as a volunteer, you may also be asked for your mailing address, phone number and occupation.
Logging on to BarackObama.com using Facebook gives the campaign permission to access your name, profile picture, gender, networks, list of friends and any other information you have made public.
How much information is the campaign tracking and connecting back to you? The campaign won’t give an overarching answer to that.
That doesn’t mean it is tracking everything. For instance, the campaign website features an interactive graphic that allows users to see how the health-care reform law might benefit them. To do so, users click through several options, selecting whether they have private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or no insurance at all, how many people are in their families, and what their annual household incomes are.
It’s worth noting that, as many websites do, the campaign also works with third-party ad vendors that use web cookies to track your browsing online. This enables them to serve you ads on different sites — and to target their ads based on the sites you visit.