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Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From An Assault Weapons Ban

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

The morning after the Sandy Hook shootings, Shannon Watts, a mother of five and a former public relations executive, started a Facebook page called “One Million Moms for Gun Control.” It proved wildly popular and members quickly focused on renewing the federal ban on military-style assault weapons.

“We all were outraged about the fact that this man could use an AR-15, which seemed like a military-grade weapon, and go into an elementary school and wipe out 26 human beings in less than five minutes,” Watts said.

Nearly two years later, Watts works full-time as the head of the group, now named Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, is a significant player in a coalition financed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. But while polls suggest a majority of Americans still support an assault weapons ban, it is no longer one of Watts’ top priorities.

“We’ve very much changed our strategy to focus on public safety measures that will save the most lives,” she told ProPublica.

It’s not just that the ban proved to be what Watts calls a “nonstarter” politically, gaining fewer votes in the Senate post-Sandy Hook than background check legislation. It was also that as Watts spoke to experts and learned more about gun violence in the United States, she realized that pushing for a ban isn’t the best way to prevent gun deaths.

A 2004 Justice Department-funded evaluation found no clear evidence that the decade-long ban saved any lives. The guns categorized as “assault weapons” had only been used in about 2 percent of gun crimes before the ban. “Should it be renewed,” the report concluded, “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”

With more information, Watts decided that focusing on access to guns, not types of guns, was a smarter approach. She came to the same conclusion that other gun control groups had reached even before the Sandy Hook shootings: “Ultimately,” she said, “what’s going to save the most lives are background checks.”

While many gun control groups still officially support the assault weapons ban — “we haven’t abandoned the issue,” as Watts said — they’re no longer actively fighting for it.

“There’s certainly a lot of public sentiment around high-capacity magazines and assault weapons,” Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview this summer. “It’s easy to understand why people feel so passionate about it.”

But, he said, “when you look at this issue in terms of the greatest opportunity to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and prevent gun violence, background checks are a bigger opportunity to do that.”

Bloomberg’s umbrella group, Everytown for Gun Safety, has also de-emphasized an assault weapons ban. A 10-question survey the group gave to federal candidates to measure their stances on gun policy did not even ask about a ban.

“We acknowledge that assault weapons put the ‘mass’ in mass shootings,” Erika Soto Lamb, the group’s communications director, said. But “we feel like it’s a more productive use of our time, effort, money, voices, and votes [to focus] on the policies that are going to save the most lives.”

The most common criticism of the weapons ban — which was signed into law on Sept. 13, 1994 — was that it focused too much on the cosmetic “military-style” features of guns, like pistol grips or folding rifle stocks, which made it easy for manufacturers to turn banned guns into legal guns by tweaking a few features. During the ban, some manufacturers added “PCR” to the name of these redesigned guns, for “politically correct rifle.”

But the more profound criticism of the ban is that “assault weapons,” a politically charged and imprecise term, have never been the weapons that contribute the most to American gun violence. Gun rights groups have pointed out for years that the campaign against assault weapons ignores the data. (The National Rifle Association did not respond to our requests for comment.)

While assault weapons do appear to be used more frequently in mass shootings, like the ones in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado, such shootings are themselves rare events that are only responsible for a tiny fraction of gun homicides each year. The category of guns that are used in the majority of gun murders are handguns.

Despite this data — and perhaps because many Americans do not have an accurate understanding of gun violence statistics — an assault weapons ban has continued to have broad public and political support.

In January 2014, a Rassmussen poll found that 59 percent of likely voters still favored an assault weapons ban, even after the measure failed in the Senate in April 2013, along with the rest of the White House’s push for tougher gun laws.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the author of the original ban, has repeatedly re-introduced it, most recently in 2013, after the Sandy Hook shootings. Obama made the policy part of his post-Sandy Hook platform for gun violence prevention, though the White House’s central focus was on passing universal background checks.

Experts say that a smarter way to approach the assault weapons ban might be to focus on the ammunition, not the design of the guns themselves. The 1994 gun ban included a ban on magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Unlike “assault weapons,” high-capacity magazines were used in as much as 26 percent of gun crimes before the ban. Limiting magazines to a smaller number of rounds might mean shooters, particularly in mass shooting situations, could not hit as many victims as quickly.

But even this focus on banning high-capacity magazines, rather than guns, suffers from a lack of data. “It is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than 10 shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading,” the 2004 evaluation concluded.

There is some evidence that the ban was preventing violence outside the U.S.: Mexican politicians have long blamed the end of the assault weapons ban for contributing to drug-related violence in Mexico. In a 2013 study, three American academics found that the end of the ban brought about “at least 238 additional deaths annually” in areas of Mexico near the U.S. border.

Meanwhile, as gun control groups have moved their focus away from gun bans, Americans are buying fewer assault weapons than they did when a ban seemed imminent, Bloomberg News reported last month.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Democrats Push To Restart CDC Funding For Gun Violence Research

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

Two congressional Democrats are unveiling legislation this morning that would restart the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s gun violence research efforts.

Since 1996, when a small CDC-funded study on the risks of owning a firearm ignited opposition from Republicans, the CDC’s budget for research on firearms injuries has shrunk to zero.

The result, as we’ve detailed, is that many basic questions about gun violence — such as how many Americans are shot each year — remain unanswered.

The new legislation, which will be introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) in the House, and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) in the Senate, would give the CDC $10 million a year “for the purpose of conducting or supporting research on firearms safety or gun violence prevention.”

“In America, gun violence kills twice as many children as cancer, and yet political grandstanding has halted funding for public health research to understand this crisis,” Maloney said in a statement.

Maloney, who co-sponsored the 1994 assault weapons ban, is a longtime gun control advocate. Earlier this year, she and Markey encouraged President Obama to include CDC funding in his proposed 2015 budget, which he did.

Obama’s proposal has been opposed by key Republicans.

“The President’s request to fund propaganda for his gun-grabbing initiatives though the CDC will not be included in the FY2015 appropriations bill,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that traditionally sets CDC funding, told ProPublica last month.

The CDC sponsors a wide variety of disease and injury prevention programs, focusing on everything from HIV/AIDS to averting falls by elderly people. Since 2007, the CDC has spent less than $100,000 a year on firearms-focused work, according to a CDC spokeswoman. The money goes not for research but for a very rough, annual estimate of the number of Americans injured by shootings.

The National Rifle Association’s director of public affairs told CNN last year that more government-funded gun research is not needed.

“What works to reduce gun violence is to make sure that criminals are prosecuted and those who have been found to be a danger to themselves or others don’t have access to firearms,” Andrew Arulanandam said. “Not to carry out more studies.”

The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposed legislation.

Professional groups that represent doctors, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, support the push for more research funding. In a letter last summer, the associations wrote that “the dearth of gun violence research has contributed to the lack of meaningful progress in reducing firearm injuries,” and noted that “firearm injuries are one of the top three causes of death among youth.”

The CDC is not the only source of federal funding for gun violence research. The Justice Department — which has funded gun violence prevention studies since the 1980s — gave nearly $2 million to firearms violence projects last year, and is offering as much as $1.5 million in research funding this year.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which invests $30 billion in medical research each year, put out a call last fall for new research projects on gun violence prevention. It’s not yet clear how much money the NIH will devote to the research. The NIH will announce the gun violence projects it will fund in September and December, a spokeswoman said.

A report last year from experts convened by the federally funded Institute of Medicine outlined the current priorities for research on reducing gun violence. Among the questions that need answers, according to the report: How often do Americans successfully use guns to protect themselves each year? Could improved “smart gun” technologies reduce gun deaths and injuries, and will consumers be willing to adopt them? And would universal background checks — the most popular and prominent gun control policy proposal — actually reduce gun violence?

Photo: brian.ch via Flickr

 

Republicans Say No To CDC Gun Violence Research

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

After the Sandy Hook school shooting, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) was one of the few congressional Republicans who expressed a willingness to reconsider the need for gun control laws.

“Put guns on the table, also put video games on the table, put mental health on the table,” he said less than a week after the Newtown shootings. He told a local TV station that he wanted to see more research done to understand mass shootings. “Let’s let the data lead rather than our political opinions.”

For nearly 20 years, Congress has pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to steer clear of firearms violence research. As chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that traditionally sets CDC funding, Kingston has been in a position to change that. Soon after Sandy Hook, Kingston said he had spoken to the head of the agency. “I think we can find some common ground,” Kingston said.

More than a year later, as Kingston competes in a crowded Republican primary race for a U.S. Senate seat, the congressman is no longer talking about common ground.

In a statement to ProPublica, Kingston said he would oppose a proposal from President Obama for $10 million in CDC gun research funding. “The president’s request to fund propaganda for his gun-grabbing initiatives though the CDC will not be included in the FY2015 appropriations bill,” Kingston said.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR), the vice chairman of the subcommittee, also “supports the long-standing prohibition of gun control advocacy or promotion funding,” his spokeswoman said.

CDC’s current funding for gun violence prevention research remains at $0.

As gun violence spiked in the early 1990s, the CDC ramped up its funding of firearms violence research. Then, in 1996, it backed off under pressure from Congress and the National Rifle Association. Funding for firearms injury prevention activities dropped from more than $2.7 million in 1995 to barely $100,000 by 2012, according to CDC figures.

After the Sandy Hook shootings, Obama issued a presidential memorandum “directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.”

Following Obama’s instructions, the authoritative Institute of Medicine put together a report on priorities for research on reducing gun violence. Among the questions that need answers, according to the report: Do background checks — the most popular and prominent gun control policy proposal — actually reduce gun violence? How often do Americans successfully use guns to protect themselves each year? And — a question that Kingston himself had raised repeatedly — what is the relationship between violence in video games and other media and “real-life” violence?

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who led the CDC’s gun violence research in the 1990s, said that the National Rifle Association and other opponents of funding have often fueled a misconception: that Americans can be for guns or for gun research, but not both.

“The researchers at CDC are committed to two goals: one goal is preventing firearm injuries. The second goal is to preserve the rights of legitimate gun owners. They have been totally misportrayed,” Rosenberg said.

A long list of associations that represent medical professionals — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics — signed a letter last year urging Congress to fund gun violence prevention research.

“If all we wanted to do was protect the rights of legitimate gun owners, we wouldn’t pass any legislation, and if we just wanted to reduce firearm injuries and death, we might say, ‘Take all guns out of civilian hands,'” Rosenberg said. “The trick is, we want to do both at the same time, and that requires research.”

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment. Last year, the NRA’s director of public affairs, Andrew Arulanandam, told CNN that more government gun research is not needed.

“What works to reduce gun violence is to make sure that criminals are prosecuted and those who have been found to be a danger to themselves or others don’t have access to firearms,” Arulanandam said. “Not to carry out more studies.”

Kingston has touted his A rating from the NRA. But in his opponents in the Senate primary race are also running on their gun-rights records. (One of them recently made headlines with an AR-15 assault rifle giveaway.)

The CDC is not the only source of federally funded research on gun violence. In response to Obama’s push for more research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which invests $30 billion in medical research each year, put out a call for new research projects on gun violence prevention last fall. While the first submission deadline has passed, it’s not yet clear how many projects will be funded, or how much money NIH will devote to the effort. An NIH spokeswoman said there is no set funding amount.

Congress also approved Obama’s request for additional CDC funding last year to broaden the reach of the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS), a detailed database of the circumstances surrounding all kinds of violent deaths, including gun deaths. Obama has asked for $23 million this year, to expand the data collection to all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

A CDC spokeswoman said that while the agency “does not receive any dedicated funding for firearm-related injury prevention research,” Congress does fund “research on a variety of related topics, including youth violence, child maltreatment, domestic violence, and sexual violence.”

“We remain committed to treating gun violence as the public health issue it is, which is why we need the best researchers in this country working on this topic,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees CDC funding, successfully pushed for more NVDRS funding last year. He told ProPublica in a statement that investing in gun violence research is a “critical need,” but that it has to be balanced “with many competing priorities.”

Other Democrats in the Senate and House — including Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) — have continued to push for more funding.

Now, You Can’t Ban Guns At The Public Pool

by Lois Beckett, Pro Publica

If you feel unsafe at a public pool in Charleston, WV, you may soon have the right to lie there on a towel with a handgun at your side.

For 20 years, Charleston has been an island of modest gun restrictions in a very pro-gun-rights state. But its gun laws — including a ban on guns in city parks, pools and recreation centers — are now likely to be rolled back, the latest victory in a long-standing push to deny cities the power to regulate guns

Since the 1980s, the National Rifle Association and other groups have led a successful campaign to get state legislatures to limit local control over gun regulations. These “preemption” laws block cities from enacting their own gun policies, effectively requiring cities with higher rates of gun violence to have the same gun regulations as smaller towns.

Before 1981, when an Illinois town banned the possession of handguns, just a handful of states had preemption laws on the books. Today, 42 states block cities from making gun laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Even Illinois, which has long allowed its cities to pass gun control measures, is about to invalidate local restrictions on concealed handguns and ban any future local regulation of assault weapons.

Gun rights advocates argue that allowing cities to have their own gun laws creates an impossible situation for law-abiding gun owners, who cannot be expected to read ordinances for every town they might pass through.

The preemption campaign has racked up so many victories nationwide, it’s now focusing on holdouts like Charleston, population 51,000.

Charleston’s current gun restrictions include a three-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and a limit of one handgun purchase per month, as well as bans on guns on publicly owned property, such as parks and pools.

West Virginia Delegate Patrick Lane crafted an amendment to an unrelated state bill, now passed, that will likely force Charleston to erase those restrictions.

“Crime could happen anyplace. You obviously want to be able to defend yourself and your family if something happens,” Lane said, when asked why anyone would want to bring a gun to a public pool.

The NRA did not respond to requests for comment, but its website calls Charleston’s restrictions “misguided” and “unreasonable.” Its site has closely tracked the progress of the repeal of the ordinances, which it states “would have no negative impact whatsoever on Charleston.” The site has repeatedly criticized Charleston’s Republican mayor for “speaking out publicly against this pro-gun reform.”

It’s not clear what effect the spread of preemption has had on public safety. “It’s very hard to determine what causes crime to go up and down, because there are so many variables,” said Laura Cutilletta, a senior attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

But in Charleston, Police Chief Brent Webster says he’s worried about losing the city’s current restrictions, in particular the law banning guns at city pools, concerts and sporting events.

“You will have some citizens say, ‘I can do that now, so I’m going to do that,'” Webster said. “I am greatly concerned.”

“When they’re diving off the diving board, is that [gun] going to be in a book bag? Is that going to be lying under their towel and an eight-year-old kid is walking through the pool area and picks it up?”

Two of the city’s former police chiefs also say they’re worried about losing the ban on guns in public places that attract kids.

“That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment right. It has to do with public safety,” former Chief Dallas Staples said.

Charleston’s mayor, Danny Jones, who’s fought to keep the gun restrictions, said the city now has no choice but to do what the state legislature wants and roll them back. The state legislature packaged the rollback requirement with a popular measure giving Charleston more leeway in how it raises taxes.

“I’m still reeling from all this, because it’s going to affect us in a very negative way,” Jones told reporters after the law passed.

Keith Morgan, president of the West Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, a gun rights group, said the group been pushing for an end to Charleston’s ordinances for years, and that the change would protect law-abiding gun owners from a “minefield” of conflicting local laws.

Lane, the West Virginia delegate, also said that gun-owning commuters were put at risk as they traveled through different cities with different rules.

But neither Lane nor Morgan could cite an example of a gun owner being prosecuted for accidentally breaking the law during their commute, or by accidentally wandering into a city park. When Morgan himself once showed up at the Charleston Civic Center with a gun, he said, he was simply asked to leave, and he did. In lawsuits the West Virginia Citizen’s Defense League filed against gun ordinances in Charleston and Martinsburg, the plaintiffs cited their fear of potential prosecution.

The main burden of Charleston’s laws for gun owners has been the inconvenience of waiting three days to purchase a handgun, and only being able to buy one handgun at a time — something that can be particularly troublesome “if you’re buying a present for your family and there happens to be a Christmas sale at the retailer,” Lane said.

Former Charleston law enforcement officers say the handgun restrictions, passed in 1993, helped the city tamp down on the drugs-for-guns trade that was rampant at the time. But since then, gun stores have sprung up right at the city’s borders, said Steve Walker, a former Charleston police officer and now president of the West Virginia branch of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether with them repealing it, it is going to help them or hurt them,” Walker said of the handgun restrictions.

State legislators said that city officials are overplaying their fears.

“I don’t see everyone with a concealed carry permit deciding to go to a pool and carry a gun,” said Democrat Mark Hunt, a state delegate, “So what if they do? They’re law-abiding citizens.”

Charleston’s mayor said he has a plan if somebody brings a gun poolside: “We’re going to close down the pool.”

Photo: Bitchin’ Amy via Flickr.com

Voter Information Wars: Will The GOP Team Up With Walmart’s Data Specialist?

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica

The Republicans have admitted it: They need to get serious about collecting and analyzing voter data.

Well, you can’t get much more serious than talking to Teradata, the “data warehousing” company that helps Walmart, Apple and eBay store massive amounts of information about the behavior of their customers.

Teradata is just one of the major data outfits with which leading Republican strategists are talking in their declared effort to match Barack Obama’s big data campaign tactics, according to one person with knowledge of the strategy discussions.

The Republican National Committee would neither confirm nor deny talking with Teradata, but was emphatic that no deal is in place. Teradata also declined to comment. There’s unlikely to be any final deals until the RNC appoints a chief technology officer, which it has pledged to do by May 1.

But if Republican strategists are still shopping for formal partners, their goal is clear: a new, more open database that will make it easier for Republican candidates to share what they’re learning about voters — and for the party to share voter information with technology developers in order to build apps for use in coming campaigns.

“At lots of levels, for lots of reasons, there’s a lot of people that we’re talking to,” Mike Shields, the RNC’s new chief of staff, told ProPublica.

Both Republicans and Democrats already have databases of basic information about every voter in the United States. But Obama’s campaign made big strides in connecting data from different sources, like campaign donation records, consumer data and volunteer lists, in order to produce more detailed profiles of individual voters.

The Democratic National Committee has also streamlined the way information flows between local volunteers and the national party, so that data about voters collected by many different campaigns — such as a Minnesota voter’s stance on gay marriage or who a Virginia voter supported in a state senate race — all ends up in the same database in DC.

Republicans want to match these innovations — especially the flashy ones, like the Obama campaign’s ability to link people’s Facebook profiles to their official voting records. They also want to use data to make predictions about individual voters, not only about how to influence their vote, but about how to maximize their potential political donations.

This is where Teradata could certainly be useful. The company is not a data broker, an outfit that strictly sells information about consumers. (So, for instance, the GOP wouldn’t be getting any of Apple or Walmart’s data.) Instead, Teradata helps companies organize their own data, so that they can pick out unexpected trends — for instance, that Walmart shoppers stocking up for a hurricane often buy strawberry Pop-Tarts.

When working with Isle of Capri Casinos, Teradata built a system to combine information about customer gambling habits with data from the company’s hotels. The new system sends an automatic alert to casino hosts whenever a “high-value guest” arrives at a hotel. It also tracks how different customers respond to coupons, emails, and special offers.

This kind of detailed tracking has become ever more central to data-driven political campaigns. Almost every day, Obama’s re-election campaign tested 12 to 18 different email variations, before sending out the best-performing fundraising email to its entire list — a testing strategy that sometimes earned the campaign an extra million dollars, or more.

The campaign also tracked individual responses to email blasts — storing information on whether someone had, for instance, signed a card wishing Michelle Obama a Happy Mother’s Day, and using that information when asking the same people to sign a birthday card for Barack.

Obama’s data team also generated individualized predictions about voters. The team calculated, among other things, which people were most likely to be persuaded to support Obama based on a conversation about a certain policy issue — information that then allowed field organizers to be more strategic about the houses they visited and the phone calls they made.

Working with a company like Teradata would only be a first step toward this kind of sophisticated data program. Obama’s 2012 campaign considered using Teradata, but ended up going with Vertica, a Teradata competitor, paired with open-source software Hadoop, to organize and search through their huge quantities of data. But, as former Obama staffers point out, having masses of information doesn’t do anything on its own: You have to use the data to ask the right questions.

Walmart famously used its database to ask what products customers tended to buy before hurricanes. The Obama campaign used its data to ask whether the voters it wanted to reach were watching the evening news — or other kinds of television shows altogether. The campaign used the television-watching data it acquired to figure out exactly what shows the voters they wanted to reach were watching, all of which made for more cost-effective ad placements.

The result? The Obama campaign bought more targeted ads, while spending less per television spot than the Romney campaign, according to data collected by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.

The campaign also constantly adjusted its predictions — and checked on the big picture of the campaign — by connecting voter information with detailed polling data.

Shields, the RNC’s new chief of staff, called the data developments “a space race” between the RNC and the Democratic National Committee.

“They put up Sputnik, but there’s no reason that we can’t put a man on the moon, and leave them behind,” he said.

As well as hiring in-house data analysts, the RNC plans to make it easy for outside software developers to access the party’s national database. The goal, Shields said, is to create a “vibrant marketplace” of digital tools and applications that developers can sell to Republican candidates — all based on the party’s own voter data. Think about the apps that connect to your Facebook profile — but for politics.

If the plan takes off, some of the GOP’s closely-guarded voter data will soon be available in new ways. Obama’s 2012 canvassing app, which anyone could download, included a map of the user’s current location that displayed the first names, addresses, ages and genders of nearby Democrats.

The RNC will still get to control which developers are allowed to access its data. But its plans for a more open data platform will require that the Republican establishment confront technical, legal and cultural hurdles.

“[The RNC] is an organization that is trying to figure out where they sit with technology in general. They’re going to have to make an investment in a big way, if they’re going to go on with open development,” Harper Reed, the Obama campaign’s chief technology officer, told ProPublica.

The hard part about opening up your data is trusting the users, Reed said — including the users you don’t like. What happens if some Republican developers want to use Republican data to build a pro-choice app?

“This would be a challenge for any organization, not just a political one,” he said. “It sounds interesting. It sounds innovative. It’s a challenge.”

AP Photo/CBS News, Chris Usher

Will Democrats Sell Your Political Opinions To Credit Card Companies?

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

For years, state Democratic parties have been gathering information about individual voters’ political leanings. They have noted down the opinions voters shared with canvassers — which candidates they said they supported or their positions on policy issues.

Now, the record of what people told Democratic volunteers may go up for sale — and not just to political groups. Democrats are looking into whether credit card companies, retailers like Target or other commercial interests may want to buy the information.

State Democratic party leaders formed the National Voter File Co-op in 2011 to sell their voter data to approved groups like the NAACP. The goal was to recoup some of the money local Democratic parties spent collecting and updating their local voter lists, which include voters of all parties.

Much of the data the co-op sells comes from the government and is already part of the public record — information such as voters’ names, addresses and party affiliation.

But local Democratic parties also have information about voters’ views and preferences collected over many campaign cycles. (We wrote about Minnesota’s data-collecting “Grandma Brigade” last month.) Some states have used this raw data to create sophisticated estimates of how likely any voter is to vote for a Democrat, support Barack Obama or have certain opinions, say, on abortion or gun control.

As the co-op moves into its second year of selling data in an already crowded marketplace, it’s looking for new potential clients — and companies who may use the data for commercial purposes, as opposed to political ones, are on the list.

“That’s one of our growth areas,” said Drew Brighton of TargetSmart Communications, which helps administer and market the co-op’s data. “Over the next six months, we are going to go ahead and make the rounds with some corporate prospects.”

Brighton said retailers, for example, might be interested in figuring out if their customers are primarily Democrats or Republicans. “People want to know who shops in their stores,” he said.

Democrats involved with the co-op do not know what companies might be most interested in buying their voter data.

“What the co-op is doing is saying, ‘Look, there’s a wealth of information here, that could potentially benefit your corporation or your business interests,'” said Ken Martin, a member of the co-op’s board, and the chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

“Everything is on the table, nothing’s off the table. It’s up to us to figure out what [data] there’s a market for, and whether there’s a comfort level among state parties for selling that information,” he said.

Each state Democratic Party will have the final say over whether to sell their voter information for commercial purposes. If state party leaders aren’t comfortable with selling proprietary data to a certain client, they can opt out.

Individual states have different laws about how their public voting records can be used. Many states mandate that public voter rolls can only be used for “political purposes,” and some states explicitly ban using voting records for “commercial purposes.” The co-op and its clients must abide by these rules.

But state political data laws do not apply to the information about voters that the party itself has gathered.

“Generally, information freely provided to the party by the voter, or data about who participated in a primary [that the party collects] is not subject to any prohibition on it being sold,” said Karl Sandstrom, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Elections Commission and an attorney for the co-op.

This means Democrats are free to sell the opinions voters give to campaign canvassers to credit card companies or marketing firms.

Whether they will choose to do this isn’t certain. Martin, the Minnesota Democratic chairman, said that party leaders will have to weigh the risks of any potential deal.

“Obviously, we know we could make money off our file, but it always comes back to the question of, at what cost?” Martin said.

He said he would evaluate commercial deals on a case-by-case basis.

“I’m not opposed to selling the data if it’s a corporation who shares our values and is going to do some good work with that data.”

Walmart, for instance, would not make the cut, he said.

Whether corporations are interested in buying the co-op’s data remains to be seen. Walmart did not respond to a request for comment about whether it would be interested in buying information about its customers’ political beliefs.

Consumer data companies like Experian already peddle information about individuals’ political beliefs and donation histories — and also link this information to their consumer habits. This November, Experian Simmons released a study breaking down the political leanings of shoppers at J. Crew, Lady Footlocker, and more than 100 other major retailers.

But the fact that selling voters’ opinions to companies is even an option for Democrats is another example of how rapidly the data industry is evolving — and how little information individuals have about how their data is being shared.

In his “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” released last year, President Barack Obama argued that when companies collect personal data from consumers, they should only share it in ways consumers expect.

If a company decides it wants to share personal information in a new way, Obama suggested, it should notify the consumers who are affected and provide them with choices about how their data is used.

Although Obama pledged to work with Congress to make the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights a law, that hasn’t happened yet.

Joseph Turow, a privacy expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said the possibility that Democrats might repurpose voters’ opinions for commercial marketing is problematic — particularly because they had collected that information through “a relationship of trust” with voters.

Both Democrats and Republicans have long traded information about voters’ opinions with outside political groups. Long-time Republican activists have created a new group, the Data Trust, to manage the Republican National Committee’s data and coordinate data exchanges between the RNC and conservative and issue advocacy groups.

Asked if the Republican Party sells the party’s proprietary data to retailers or credit card companies, RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowsi wrote, “Absolutely not — hasn’t happened in past and won’t in [the] future.”

The Obama campaign’s own closely guarded trove of voter information will be used to mobilize support for the president’s agenda through a new nonprofit advocacy group, Organizing for Action, led by top Obama aides.

It’s not clear what other groups may be given access to Obama’s voter data. Organizing for Action did not respond to a request for comment. Staffers have said that passing on the campaign’s voter information to an Obama-focused nonprofit reflects the wishes of the president’s supporters, although supporters were not asked directly about how the campaign should treat their data.

Sandstrom, the lawyer for the state Democratic parties’ National Voter File Co-op, said he doubted the co-op would actually end up selling voters’ opinions for commercial uses, calling it an “abstract concern.”

Democratic Party chairs were not eager to weigh in on the issue.

Last week, ProPublica contacted 11 Democratic state party chairs — some of them newly elected to their positions — about the National Voter File Co-op. Party chairs in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin declined or did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

New Hampshire Democratic chair Ray Buckley, who leads the Association of State Democratic Chairs, also declined to comment.

Photo by StormKatt/Flickr

In Minnesota, Democratic Grandmas Gather Data About Their Neighbors

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

In Minnesota, Democratic volunteers scour their local newspapers each morning for letters to the editor with a political slant. They pay attention to the names of callers on radio shows. They drive through their neighborhoods and jot down the addresses of campaign lawn signs.

Then they feed the information into a state Democratic Party database that includes nearly every voter in Minnesota.

Some of the states’ few dozen data volunteers are so devoted that they log in to the party database daily from their home computers. Deb Pitzrick, 61, of Eden Prairie, convinced a group of her friends to form the “Grandma Brigade.” These women, in their 50s, 60s and 70s, no longer want to knock on doors for the Democrats. Instead, they support the party by gathering public information about other voters.

Much of the data the Grandma Brigade collects is prosaic: records of campaign donations or voters who have recently died. But a few volunteers see free information everywhere. They browse the listings of names on Tea Party websites. They might add a record of what was said around the family Thanksgiving table — Uncle Mitch voted for Bachmann, cousin Alice supports gay marriage.

One data volunteer even joked about holding “rat out your neighbor parties,” where friends would be encouraged to add notes about the political views of other people on their block.

Once information about individual people is entered into the state party’s database, it doesn’t stay in Minnesota. Almost all the information collected by local volunteers like the Grandma Brigade also ends up in the party’s central database in Washington.

Few places have data volunteers as dedicated as the ones in Minnesota, which has been held up as a model for other state Democratic parties. Both Democrats and Republicans have centralized databases that, among other things, track opinions you share with local campaign volunteers.

Each piece of information the parties have stored about you might not be too interesting on its own. But taken together, they’re incredibly powerful. Political campaigns are using this voter data to predict voters’ behavior in increasingly sophisticated ways.

“People say that campaigns are more art than science. They’re wrong,” said Ken Martin, the chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

“We’re pretty sure, when we pull you up on a file, which way you’re going to vote,” he said. “It’s a little scary. A little Big Brother.”

Voters themselves have no way to know what data politicians have collected about them, or how campaigns are using or sharing that information. Indeed, the same politicians who are pushing for more transparency about the workings of the commercial data industry — including President Barack Obama — have said nothing about the information that political campaigns collect.

Both political parties treat their data operations as closely guarded secrets and will not even reveal exactly what kinds of information about voters are stored in their databases.

At times, politicians are assembling data that has no obvious application. With technology evolving, this information could be valuable in the future.

“A lot of it you just have to collect in good faith that later there will be some place it will apply,” said Sarah Black, the Minnesota DFL voter file manager.

The Grandma Brigade’s Pitzrick said she doesn’t think the publicly available data that she and other volunteers are collecting raises privacy concerns.

“Is it any different than having Best Buy have it for you?” she asked. “It’s out there.”

Political parties can use the data they collect to look at how individual voters’ opinions and loyalties change over time.

In Virginia, a typical profile in the Democratic Party’s database includes notes from the dozens of times campaigns have contacted a given voter since 2001, including which candidates the voter has supported over the years, and whether they were Democrats or Republicans, according to Brenner Tobe, the party’s director of information and technology.

By the 2016 presidential race, Virginia Democrats will have recorded 15 years’ worth of interactions with some voters.

Minnesota’s data goes back even further, thanks to an early investment in a computerized data system in the 1980s.

“The pool of people we don’t know something about gets smaller and smaller,” Black, the voter file manager, said.

During this past election cycle, Democratic volunteers in Minnesota had one million new conversations with voters, which translated into at least one million new pieces of information about individual voters, Black said.

Democrats in Virginia and Minnesota collect a lot of data out of necessity, since voters in those states do not publicly register with a political party. There’s no easy way to tell Democratic voters from Republican voters unless the party saves information about them.

A Democratic data firm showed last summer that the party was able to clearly distinguish supporters from opponents despite having no information about voters’ party registration.

The amount of information politicians have about individual voters varies state-by-state. Each state party makes its own data rules, and some local candidates are more willing to share their information than others. Swing states — which see a regular influx of national money and volunteers — tend to have more information than safe states.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have pushed hard over the last decade to train volunteers to use their party’s databases. A decade ago, the Republican National Committee was sending staffers with crates of laptops to Republican events across the country, with the goal of training local activists to use the party’s “Voter Vault” database, according to interviews with former RNC staffers. Volunteers were encouraged to bring in their address books, look up their friends in the database, and update their contact information, said Serenety Hanley, who worked on the project.

Much of the coverage of President Obama’s big data effort focused on the high-level analysts and number crunchers working out of the campaign’s offices in Chicago — and the Republicans advocating for their party to adopt similar data-focused strategies.

But Democratic insiders say that their party’s data advantage comes from their strong network of on-the-ground volunteers — something that may be harder to replicate than hiring an office of data scientists.

Pitzrick, the founder of Minnesota’s Grandma Brigade, came to political activism in 2003 from a background in marketing, and was shocked at the poor quality of the Democratic Party’s information. One local volunteer she knew went to interview a voter on her list, only to find his family holding a wake.

So, Pitzrick started flipping to the newspaper obituary page over her morning cup of coffee, and updating the voter database in her local state senate district. These days, she said, she finds it more efficient to open up local entries on Legacy.com.

One of Pitzrick’s friends, 76-year-old Fran Merriman, a former high school American history and government teacher, tracks the public records of voters moving in and out of the area — something that’s a lot of fun, she quips, for a “nosy old lady.”

“Every time we send out mailers and it comes back, we’ve wasted 44 cents,” Merriman said. Updating the database, she said, is “like contributing money” to the party.

“I’m sure some place across the country there are a lot of other seniors citizens who could do this kind of work,” she said.

The Federal Trade Commission recently asked nine large data companies to clarify what commercial data companies do with individuals’ information — and whether consumers have the right to opt out. Earlier this year, several members of Congress asked data companies similar questions.

President Barack Obama himself released a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, focused on online data collection last February, which suggested that consumers “have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.” The president said he would push for legislation to back up consumers’ privacy rights.

But the administration has been silent on what, if any, rights voters should have regarding the data gathered about them.

Asked about this issue last year, a White House spokesperson would only say that the Privacy Bill of Rights “applies to how businesses handle consumers’ personal data online, and will impact all organizations using personal information collected through commercial means,” including campaigns.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

 

How Companies Have Assembled Political Profiles For Millions Of Internet Users

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica

If you’re a registered voter and surf the web, one of sites you visit has almost certainly placed a tiny piece of data on your computer flagging your political preferences. That piece of data, called a cookie, marks you as a Democrat or Republican, when you last voted, and what contributions you’ve made. It also can include factors like your estimated income, what you do for a living, and what you’ve bought at the local mall.

Across the country, companies are using cookies to tailor the political ads you see online. One of the firms is CampaignGrid, which boasted in a recent slideshow, “Internet Users are No Longer Anonymous.” The slideshow includes an image of the famous New Yorker cartoon from 1993: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Next to it, CampaignGrid lists what it can now know about an Internet user: “Lives in Pennsylvania’s 13th Congressional District, 19002 zip code, Registered primary voting Republican, High net worth household, Age 50-54, Teenagers in the home, Technology professional, Interested in politics, Shopping for a car, Planning a vacation in Puerto Rico.”

The slideshow was online until last week, when the company removed it after we asked for comment. (Here is the full slideshow.) Rich Masterson, CampaignGrid’s chairman, wrote in an email that the slideshow was posted in error: “It was an unapproved version of a sales deck that was posted by an intern who no longer works for the company.”

CampaignGrid does indeed collect 18 different “attributes” for every voter, Masterson told ProPublica, including age, gender, political donations, and more. Campaigns use this data to tailor the online ads you see.

Online targeting has taken off this campaign season. ProPublica has identified seven companies that advertise the ability to help campaigns target specific voters online. Among them is Experian, the credit reporting company. Datalogix, a company that works with Facebook to track users’ buying patterns, is also involved. (Here are marketing materials and comment from the seven companies). CampaignGrid and a few, similar firms have been profiled for their innovative approaches. Yet the scale of the targeting and the number of companies involved has received little notice.

Few of the companies involved in the targeting talk about it publicly. But CampaignGrid, which works with Republicans, and a similar, Democratic firm, Precision Network, told ProPublica they have political information on 150 million American Internet users, or roughly 80 percent of the nation’s registered voters.

The information — stripped of your name or address — is connected to your computer via a cookie. Targeting firms say replacing your name with an ID number keeps the process anonymous and protects users’ privacy.

But privacy experts say that assembling information about Internet users’ political behavior can be problematic even if voters’ names aren’t attached.

“A lot of people would consider their political identity more private than lots of information,” said William McGeveran, a data privacy expert at the University of Minnesota Law School. “We make more rules about medical privacy. We make more rules about financial privacy. So if you think private political beliefs are in that category, maybe you’re concerned about having them treated like your favorite brand of toothpaste.”

Google has stayed away from this kind of targeting. It classifies political beliefs as “sensitive personal information,” in the same category as medical information and religious beliefs.

But other big players have embraced the “political cookie,” as one company branded it.

As we reported in June, Yahoo and Microsoft sell access to your registration information for political targeting. That’s one way CampaignGrid and other companies find you online. Political targeting firms say they also work with other websites, but would not name them.

While campaigns and the firms working with them can buy reams of data about voters, voters have been left mostly in the dark.

Many online ad companies mark targeted ads with a small blue triangle symbol, or the phrase “Ad Choices,” and offer surfers a chance to opt out. But even if web users know what the triangle means, they get no information about how or why they were targeted.

“Consumers don’t really understand what’s going on and haven’t given their permission,” says Joseph Turow, a digital marketing and privacy expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

There are few legal regulations governing how online targeting works, or what notification consumers must receive.

Online advertising experts point out that individual voting records are public information and have long been used to target voters through direct mail. And targeting companies say they are offering a valuable service. Instead of seeing random ads, users get to see ads from candidates they might actually want to support.

“We empower voters,” Jeff Dittus, co-founder of Campaign Grid and now head of Audience Partners, wrote in an email. “We give voters information that is meaningful to them and helps them make choices.”

Stuart Ingis, a lawyer for the Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry group, said that voter file targeting is a First Amendment issue, and that targeting should be protected as part of political speech.

“These technologies provide a method for politicians inexpensively to improve our democracy,” he said. “I would say that the founding fathers firmly believed in the ability — I think our society very much values the ability — to efficiently reach a desired audience with a political message.”

Not everyone seems to agree. A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School found that 86 percent of surveyed adults did not want “political advertising tailored to your interests,” and that 77 percent would not return to a website if they knew it “was sharing information about me with political advertisers.”

While targeting firms promise a wealth of individual detail, it’s hard to know how much information most campaigns are actually using.

“The more third-party data providers you use, the smaller the universe of people who you can reach becomes,” CampaignGrid’s Masterson said. “Republican women 25-34 who drive SUVs and have American Express cards, and go to the theater once a month — that might be four people.”

One place online voter targeting has been used successfully is in the state senate primary race of Morgan McGarvey, a Kentucky Democrat who faced off against three other Democratic candidates this May.

With four liberal candidates competing for a liberal district, McGarvey told ProPublica, he needed to convince the small number of voters who would turn out in the primary that they should vote for him.

His campaign worked with Precision Network to show online McGarvey ads to local voters under 35, and to female Democrats who had voted in at least three of the past five primary elections. (Two of his challengers were women.)

“When every dollar counts, when literally every vote counts, you have to be more targeted,” he said.

“I do think it helped us win.”

McGarvey is now running unopposed in the November election.

Have you seen a targeted political ad?

Help us find out how politicians are targeting you online.

1. If you spot a small blue triangle icon on any online political ad, or the words “Ad Choices,” take a screenshot of the ad.

2. Then click on the blue triangle or the words “Ad Choices” to find out which company showed you the ad. Take a screenshot of that, too.

3. Email the screenshots to us at targeting2012@propublica.org. Please include the full URL of the page where you saw the ad.

If the ad asks you to “learn more,” visit a website, donate, or sign a petition, please send us a screenshot of that site or petition, as well. (The page where the ad sends you may also be targeted to what advertisers know about you.)

Not sure how to take a screenshot? Here are the instructions if you’re using a PC, using a Mac, or using a smartphone.

 

Is Your Neighbor A Democrat? Obama Has An App For That

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

 

Curious how many Democrats live on your block? Just download the Obama campaign’s new mobile app.

The app, released last week, includes a Google map for canvassers that recognizes your current location and marks nearby Democratic households with small blue flags.

For each targeted address, the app displays the first name, age and gender of the voter or voters who live there: “Lori C., 58 F, Democrat.”

All this is public information, which campaigns have long given to volunteers. But you no longer have to schedule a visit to a field office and wait for a staffer to hand you a clipboard and a printed-out list of addresses.

With the Obama app, getting a glimpse of your neighbor’s political affiliation can take seconds.

While The New York Times dubbed the app “the science-fiction dream of political operatives,” some of the voters who appear in the app are less enthusiastic about it.

“I do think it’s something useful for them, but it’s also creepy,” said Lori Carena, 58, a long-time Brooklyn resident, when she was shown the app. “My neighbors across the street can know that I’m a Democrat. I’m not sure I like that.”

It’s unclear if the app displays all registered Democrats who live in a certain area, or only a subset of voters President Obama’s campaign is trying to reach.

Asked about the privacy aspects of the new app, a spokesperson for the Obama campaign wrote that “anyone familiar with the political process in America knows this information about registered voters is available and easily accessible to the public.”

The information included in the app has “traditionally been available to anyone who walks into a campaign field office,” said the spokesperson, who declined to be named.

While the app makes voter information instantly available, it displays only a small cluster of addresses at a time. It has built-in mechanisms to detect when people are misusing the data, “such as people submitting way too many voter contacts in a short period of time,” the spokesman said.

“The campaign is strongly committed to ensuring the safety and privacy of the public and follows up with appropriate action, including alerting appropriate authorities if necessary, in any case of abuse or inappropriate behavior,” said the spokesperson. “Any voter who requests not to be contacted again is immediately removed from any provided to volunteers.”

This isn’t the first time campaigns have released digital tools that make voter information freely available.

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns currently have online calling tools that give anyone who registers for their websites the names and phone numbers of voters to contact.

In 2008, the Obama campaign’s “Neighbor to Neighbor” program allowed volunteers to use their home computers to print out lists of names and addresses to contact.

Two years later, the Democratic group Organizing for America, formed to keep mobilizing the president’s supporters after Obama was elected, released a mobile app that was in some ways a prototype of Obama’s new app. Volunteers in the 2010 midterm elections could use their mobile phones to map voters in their immediate vicinity and then send in responses from the voters they had contacted, which eliminated the need for clipboards and printed lists.

Natalie Foster, who was the new media director of Organizing for America, said the tools used in 2010 had built-in privacy limits, “where you are only given a certain number of voters that you could conceivably canvass. If somebody goes above that limit, or is just obviously clicking a button over or over, we’ll just shut it down.”

Privacy “was definitely a consideration and something that was focused on, to make sure people aren’t just going in and downloading a lot of data,” said Joshua Hendler, the former director of technology for Organizing for America.

Foster, who is now the CEO of the economic advocacy group Rebuild the Dream, and Hendler, who now works for PR firm Hill and Knowlton Strategies, said that making voter information more open makes the political process more democratic, because it lowers the barrier for people to get involved in political campaigns.

Shaun Dakin, a voter privacy advocate and longtime critic of political robocalling, flagged the Obama app last week as a “total privacy fail.”

Dakin, who criticized the Obama campaign’s 2008 Neighbor to Neighbor program on similar grounds, said voters should have the right to opt out of being contacted by political campaigns.

He also questioned why the Obama app included the ages of nearby voters, another piece of information that people might not want to have made public.

Lori Carena, the Brooklyn voter, said she doesn’t object to having canvassers knock on her door. In fact, she said she wishes it happened more often in New York, a state that’s such a Democratic stronghold she feels the campaign isn’t interested in hearing her concerns.

Asked what she feels is the difference between the traditional way of canvassing — with voter names and addresses on a printed-out list — and the new mobile app, she said, “Well, I just don’t get all this new stuff with computers and apps. That’s probably more creepy to me.”

Even low-tech tools used to distribute voter data can upset some voters. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this June that a liberal group in Wisconsin was sending fliers to voters which included a list of their neighbors and whether they had voted in 2008 and 2010.

The fliers encouraged recipients to help get out the vote for the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. Some voters were angry that their names and addresses were being distributed publicly.

“I think this is invasion of my privacy and every other woman’s privacy. It’s like — ‘Here, this is where all the women are,'” one woman told the Journal Sentinel.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and the co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said the Obama app represented a significant shift. While voter data has been “technically public,” it is usually accessed only by political campaigns and companies that sell consumer data.

He said it was “heartening” that the app makes data available to citizens who want to talk to their neighbors about their political choices.

“The purpose of this app may be Democrats visiting Democrats. I can see apps where you ask Republicans to visit Democrats and Democrats to visit Republicans.”

“If we’re comfortable enough to have [this information] go into the maw of big data processors, both political and otherwise, it seems consistent for neighbors to talk to neighbors over it,” he said.

“Much of our feelings around privacy are driven by what you might call status-quo-ism,” he said, so many people may feel that the app is creepy simply because it represents something new.

Interested to learn more about how political groups are using your personal information? See our reporting on tailored campaign emails and the new wave of targeted online ads.

 

Dark Money Political Groups Target Voters Based On Their Internet Habits

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica

Lauren Berns was browsing Talking Points Memo when he saw an ad with President Obama’s face. “Stop the Reckless Spending,” the ad read, and in smaller print, “Paid for by Crossroads GPS.” Berns was surprised. Why was Crossroads GPS, a group that powerful Republican strategist Karl Rove helped found, advertising on a liberal-leaning political website?

Looking closely at the ad, Berns saw a small blue triangle in the upper-left hand corner. He knew what that meant: this ad wasn’t being shown to every person who read that page. It was being targeted to him in particular. Tax-exempt groups like Crossroads GPS have become among the biggest players in this year’s election.  They’re often called “dark money” groups, because they can raise accept unlimited amounts of money and never have to disclose their donors.

These groups are spending massively on television spots attacking different candidates. These ads are often highly publicized and get plenty of media attention.

But these same dark money groups are also quietly expanding their online advertising efforts, using sophisticated targeting tactics to send their ads to specific kinds of people.

Who they’re targeting, and what data they’re using, is secret.

Online advertising companies have amassed vast quantities of information on what individual people read, watch, and do on the Internet. They collect this data using small files called cookies, which allows them to track Internet users as they move from site to site.

These anonymous profiles of information are used to customize advertisements — like sending casino ads to someone who just bought a plane ticket to Vegas.

But these profiles are also increasingly used by political groups, which can decide which people to target with a message — and which people to avoid — based on the kinds of articles they read and the kinds of sites they visit.

Many Internet users who see these ads may not be aware they’re being targeted.

As we’ve detailed, both the Romney and Obama campaigns are using advanced tracking and targeting tactics. Working with our readers, we found two examples of dark money groups using this kind of targeting, as well: one ad from Crossroads GPS and one ad from Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit linked to the politically influential Koch brothers.

How many of these ads are dark money groups sending out? It’s hard to say, because it’s not easy to track exactly how much Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, and similar groups are spending on different kinds of advertising.

But these politically influential organizations are moving more of their efforts online.

While Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said he couldn’t get into the specifics of their budget, “Crossroads will certainly spend more in the online space in 2012 than it did in 2010,” he said.

Americans for Prosperity did not return multiple requests for comment.

Even when Internet users are sophisticated enough to spot a targeted ad, as Lauren Berns did, it is almost impossible for them to find out why a certain organization is targeting them — or what data about them is being used.

Berns, for instance, is a registered independent from St. Petersburg, Florida — exactly the kind of voter whose opinion campaigns and political groups are trying to sway before November.  He’s a self-described “news junkie,” who reads both liberal and conservative news sites and posts articles to Facebook two to ten times a day. But it wasn’t clear what part of his Internet behavior ad triggered the Crossroads ad — or whether information about his offline life was part of the targeting formula. Had he been shown the Crossroads ad because he had visited Mitt Romney’s site? Because he regularly reads the conservative sites of The Daily Caller and The Weekly Standard? Because he lives in a swing state? Did Berns fit the profile of a potential Crossroads supporter because he’s a 44-year-old who travels regularly? Or because he shares things with his friends, thus making him a potential “social influencer?”

A popup message accompanying the ad offered information about the targeting. But it only explained, “We select ads we believe might be more relevant to your interests.”

When we sent Crossroad’s Collegio a copy of the ad, he said he could not explain exactly how the ad had been targeted, saying, “it’s a matter of strategy that we would hold close to our chests.”

But he did offer one potential targeting factor. “We are looking for viewers who are more likely to engage their lawmakers in an issue advocacy campaign, and those are generally viewers who visit news and current affairs websites,” Collegio said. If Crossroads GPS was looking to target news junkies, then Berns was the kind of person they were trying to reach — although, of course, that didn’t necessarily mean he was sympathetic to the ad’s message. Berns regularly reads conservative sites and says he is skeptical of both parties, but on policy issues, he says, he lines up more closely with the Democrats.

Because Crossroads wouldn’t disclose their targeting strategy, we can’t know how many other factors may have been involved. Collegio would not say whether the online ad was only sent to viewers in certain states.

Television ads from dark money groups often get significant media scrutiny.  When Crossroads GPS launched a television ad in early June attacking President Obama’s “reckless spending,” the group’s $7 million ad buy made headlines in papers across the country. The Washington Post fact-checked the ad’s claims, and concluded that the ad contained both exaggerations and omissions.

What didn’t get mentioned, by newspapers or by Crossroads’ own press release, was that an online version of the same ad — the ad Berns saw — would appear on the computer screens of select individuals, based on their Internet habits. Collegio said it was “likely an oversight” that the Crossroads press release didn’t include a description of the online part of the ad campaign.   But, he noted, “When we announce online buys, the media rarely report on it.”

By their nature, targeted online ads are harder for news organizations to track, since they are only shown to some users, and will never appear to others.

This makes targeted ads much less transparent than TV ads, and makes it harder to tell if politicians or political groups are using targeting to pander to certain groups of voters, or whether they’re sending out ads that are misleading, hypocritical, or just plain false.

As part of our campaign coverage, we’ve been asking readers to send in screenshots of any targeted political ads they see. Berns was one of the first to send in screenshots of a targeted ad.

Another targeted dark money ad came from a woman in Wisconsin, who asked that her name not be used. She sent screenshots of a targeted ad from the Koch-linked Americans for Prosperity attacking Wisconsin Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, who is now running for Senate.

The ad, which reads, “Tell Tammy Baldwin: Wisconsin can’t afford Washington’s wasteful spending!” asks viewers to “Click here to sign the petition.” The ad appeared on multiple sites the woman visited, including in a prominent place on the home page of the Washington Post. While Americans for Prosperity did not return requests for comment, a Washington Post spokeswoman said a broader Americans for Prosperity ad campaign had been taken down because it had not been approved by the Post’s advertising team. While many critics of targeting have been concerned that political groups might use targeting to send out controversial ads without attracting attention, that wasn’t the case with the two ads our readers spotted. The targeted ads from both groups sent the same message as their spots shown on TV.

Recent surveys suggest many American aren’t enthusiastic about political targeting online.

A survey of 1,503 adult Internet users released this week by the Annenberg School for Communications found that 86 percent of the respondents did not want “web sites to show you political ads tailored to your interests.” Most respondents also said they want to know what the campaigns know about them.

In general, Berns said, “I’m fine with targeted advertising. If I’m going to see ads on the Internet, I’d rather they be something I’m interested in.” But, he said, he draws the line at politics.

“I’d much prefer a world where candidates tried to equally hard to reach everyone, present their policies rationally, and let the chips fall where they may,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“Targeting by political viewpoint is ‘creepy,'” he wrote. “A little too close to propaganda techniques for my comfort.”

 

Three Things We Don’t Know About Obama’s Massive Voter Database

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

President Obama’s re-election campaign is reportedly building a massive database of information about potential supporters.

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.

But the campaign’s privacy policy says the campaign has the right to gather far more — information about how you use the campaign website, such as what you click on and which pages you view; data about how you interact with campaign email messages; and personal information you submit as part of blog comments, interactive forums or contests and games on the campaign’s websites.

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.

According to the campaign’s privacy policy, the campaign may track how individual users interact with the campaign website. But the campaign said that none of the information entered into the health-care interactive site was linked back to individual supporters.

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.

 

2. What will happen to all this personal information once the campaign is over?

It’s hard to know.

According to the privacy policy, the campaign reserves the right to share the personal information it collects “with candidates, organizations, groups or causes that we believe have similar political viewpoints, principles or objectives.”

The campaign wouldn’t comment about any future plans but said its track record demonstrated its approach to privacy protection.

After the 2008 election, Obama’s list of 13 million email addresses was not given to other candidates or used by the White House. Obama launched “Organizing for America,” a Democratic National Committee outreach program that drew on Obama’s wide network of supporters to generate support for the president’s agenda.

“This campaign has always and will continue to be an organization that respects and takes care to protect information that people share with us,” spokeswoman Katie Hogan said.

But the privacy policy shows the campaign is reserving the right to share its increasingly rich database. And some experts are wondering what Obama will do with it once the campaign ends.

“As a voter, I would feel a lot more comfortable if campaigns gave voters the option of whether or not they could pass their information on to other groups,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident, a site focusing on how technology affects politics.

From a voter’s perspective, “the fact that I gave the Obama campaign $10 for six months, or emailed the campaign 10 times, may not be information that I want anyone else to know,” Rasiej said.

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said she’s “never heard anyone complain” about Obama’s 2008 campaign giving away personal information.

“The success of the Obama campaign in 2008 in getting millions of people to log on to their website to give personal information and volunteer and do all sorts of things for the campaign hinged on trust,” she said. “People did not believe that that information was going to go anywhere.”

Any choice to share supporters’ information should take their preferences into account, Coney said. A campaign could easily create a checklist of politicians and organizations, allowing users to grant permission to share with some groups and not with others.

3. Is there any way to erase yourself from the campaign’s database?

As far as we can tell, no.

President Obama’s “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” released last month, says that consumers’ right to control their personal data “includes a right to withdraw consent to use personal data that the company controls.”

The Obama campaign does make it easy to unsubscribe from email, text messages or newsletters. But we couldn’t find any way to take yourself off its database — and the campaign wouldn’t comment. There’s also no apparent way to see what information the campaign is storing about you.

In a report on consumer privacy released March 26, the Federal Trade Commission called on companies to “provide consumers access to the data collected about them.”

Both the “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” and the FTC’s report are meant to serve as guidelines for future legislation regulating companies’ use of consumer data. How any laws will apply to political campaigns isn’t clear.

A White House official said the Privacy Bill of Rights “applies to how businesses handle consumers’ personal data online, and will impact all organizations using personal information collected through commercial means,” including campaigns.

Obama’s privacy policy notes that users, just as they can at any website, can disable cookies if they don’t want their browsing tracked. And to the campaign’s credit, EPIC’s Lillie Coney said, the privacy policy also includes a link to the Network Advertising Initiative, which allows users to control which digital advertisers are tracking them.

How To Win Facebook Friends And Influence People

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica

Instead of picketing outside company headquarters, an advocacy group is using Facebook ads to try to influence people whose profiles identify them as employees of Freddie Mac or JPMorgan Chase.

The anti-foreclosure ad campaign, which launches today, asks Freddie and Chase employees to talk to their CEOs about a veteran — a former Marine — who’s facing eviction in California.

“This is not any sort of attack on the employees there,” said Jim Pugh of Rebuild the Dream, which is running the ad campaign. “We’re trying to let them know what’s happening.”

The ad that targets Freddie Mac employees features a small picture of CEO Charles Haldeman’s face, and the message, “Freddie Mac did what???? Freddie Mac is evicting a former Marine who’s been trying to pay his mortgage. Tell CEO Haldeman to work out a fair deal with him!” according to a copy of the ad provided by Pugh.

The JPMorgan Chase ad is similar, but with a Chase logo instead of an executive’s face.

We’ve contacted Freddie Mac and JP Morgan Chase spokespeople for comment, and also reached out to Freddie Mac and JPMorgan Chase employees on Facebook. If you’ve seen one of these ads, please let us know.

Targeted online advertising is nothing new. (As anyone who has changed their Facebook status to “engaged” can tell you, a simple update can bring a deluge of new ads.) But political campaigns and advocacy groups are increasingly adopting the same microtargeting tactics that companies use.

Rick Perry’s campaign, for instance, targeted faith-focused ads to people in Iowa who listed themselves as Christians on Facebook, and ads featuring his wife to the state’s female conservatives, Politico reported.

According to FEC data, Endorse Liberty, a super PAC that supports Ron Paul, has led the way on Facebook expenditures, spending a total of $241,508 through January 2012.

And it’s not just Facebook and Google where campaigns and activists are doing microtargeting. The music site Pandora announced last year that it would be selling political ad space targeted to the zip codes of particular listeners, the Wall Street Journal reported.

There’s nothing inherently problematic about targeted ads. Campaigns have been using direct mail to target particular voters for decades. Digital targeting can be a cost-effective way of spending advertising dollars, especially for smaller groups, like Rebuild the Dream, which sees the ads as a great way to get more bang for their buck in terms of reaching their intended audience. (The group also launched a special donation drive specifically for the Facebook ad buy.) ProPublica even used Facebook ads to try to find sources for our 2009 series, When Caregivers Harm.

But as the ability to use data to reach particular people grows more sophisticated, targeting risks crossing privacy lines, as demonstrated by a recent New York Times article on how Target knew a teenage customer was pregnant before her father did.

What’s clear is that if all this microtargeting translates into electoral gains, the scale and sophistication of these efforts will continue to grow, and the data science that gained traction in 2008 will become a regular part of campaigning. In the meantime, the Obama campaign’s already substantial data team continues to hire statistical modeling analysts and analytics engineers.

The increasing ease and flexibility of online targeting also raises new questions about how politicians are presenting themselves to different audiences, how much campaigns need to tell their supporters about the personal information they collect — and what will happen to the massive databases of voter information collected during the 2012 presidential campaign. Will they be sold? Passed on to other politicians?

Rebuild the Dream, which focuses on economic issues, was launched by MoveOn.org in 2011, but has been independent since January, Pugh said. The group’s president is former Obama green jobs adviser Van Jones.

Pugh worked on the Obama campaign’s digital analytics team in 2008 while also trying to finish a Ph.D. dissertation in robotics, and later did similar work for the Democratic National Committee. He said he was not sure what kind of reaction the ads would receive.

“I would imagine that people are fairly used to targeted ads at this point,” he said. But while people who work in politics and advocacy may be used to receiving Facebook ads targeting specific causes, “It’s hard to know in advance how unusual it will seem to the employees of Freddie Mac and JP Morgan Chase.”


New Arrests In Murdoch Bribery Scandal Raise Question Of U.S. Charges

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica

This weekend, five more journalists from a Rupert Murdoch-owned British tabloid were arrested as part of an ongoing bribery investigation.

The arrested journalists, all from The Sun, were later released, and have yet to be charged with any crimes. (As The Wall Street Journal explained last summer, arrests in the U.K. are often made early in a criminal investigation, and may not be followed by any charges.)

But the arrests have once again raised questions about whether Murdoch’s News Corp. might face prosecution for bribery in the U.S. under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Reuters reported last week that U.S. authorities are “stepping up investigations” of the possible bribery by Murdoch employees. An FBI spokeswoman told ProPublica, “We’re aware of the allegations, and we’re looking into it.”

As we noted during the unfolding of the phone hacking scandal last summer, the U.S. has stepped up prosecutions of companies for bribery of foreign officials in recent years, and the fines for these violations can be steep. Companies can face prosecution by the Justice Department if they record bribery payments, or be pursued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for fake record-keeping if they falsify documents to conceal the bribes.

The statute of limitations on civil Foreign Corrupt Practices Act charges is five years. The New York Times reported Saturday that it was not clear when the allegations that led to the Sun arrests had taken place, “though some of those arrested have told friends that they were questioned on events from almost a decade ago.”

Those arrested at The Sun included the paper’s chief reporter, chief foreign correspondent and deputy editor. Last month, four other current and former Sun journalists were arrested, including the paper’s crime editor and former managing editor. A police officer, a member of the armed services and an employee of the Ministry of Defense were also arrested this weekend “on suspicion of corruption,” broadening the scope of the investigation from its original focus, bribery of police officers by journalists, to bribery of other officials as well.

The arrests were based on information provided by News Corp.’s Management and Standards Committee, an internal unit created in response to the phone hacking scandal last summer. The committee reports to Joel Klein, a former U.S. assistant attorney general and New York City schools chancellor who is now a News Corp. executive.

Our request for comment from News Corp. this morning was not immediately answered. In a January news release following the earlier arrests, the company reiterated its pledge “that unacceptable news gathering practices by individuals in the past would not be repeated.”

The latest arrests, which were accompanied by police searches of the journalists’ homes, have prompted anger and frustration from some British journalists, directed at the police and politicians driving the investigation, and at News Corp. executives.

“Once again, Rupert Murdoch is trying to pin the blame on individual journalists, hoping that a few scalps will salvage his corporate reputation,” the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists told The Guardian.

The Sun’s associate editor, Trevor Kavanagh, called the investigation “a witch-hunt” that threatens press freedom, and said there was “nothing disreputable” about paying for stories.

“Sometimes money changes hands,” Kavanagh wrote in The Sun. “This has been standard procedure as long as newspapers have existed, here and abroad.”

Last summer, the phone-hacking scandal resulted in the closure of another Murdoch-owned publication, the 168-year-old British tabloid News of the World, but News International executive Tom Mockridge reassured staff this weekend that Murdoch had pledged his “total commitment” to continuing to own and publish The Sun.

Murdoch will reportedly fly to London this week.

The publisher of the shuttered News of the World has paid hundreds of thousands of pounds in phone-hacking settlements to celebrities, celebrity employees and politicians, including at least $200,000 to actor Jude Law and at least $63,000 to Guy Pelly, a friend of Prince Harry’s, according to the Guardian.