Ira Rubinstein, a senior fellow at the New York University School of Law, recently published a 76-page report concluding that political campaigns have “the largest unregulated assemblage of personal data in contemporary American life.” But while he’d like to see greater transparency, including mandatory disclosure of all political microtargeting practices, he’s doubtful anything will get done about it until something goes haywire.
“This whole issue awaits a really good scandal before it becomes a matter of public debate,” he said in an interview.
Indeed, there is a lot of reason to believe that voters are ready to turn against a candidate whose data mining is perceived to go too far. A 2012 poll by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication found 86 percent of respondents didn’t want political campaigns to tailor advertisements to them. And once people learned that the campaigns were doing exactly that, large majorities said they would not be as inclined to vote for such politicians.
Everyone from Ready for Hillary to the Republican National Committee spent the past cycle scraping up data from their supporters’ Facebook networks — from birthdays to favorite restaurants. At the music site Pandora, more than 400 political campaigns bought ads targeting people by matching them up with their entertainment preferences: listeners of Bob Marley and Daft Punk, for example, got synced with Democrats, while Republicans were often connected to fans of Dolly Parton and Yanni.
Privacy experts note that even their issue’s champions, like Sens. Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, have used cookies on their campaign websites to vacuum up information about a visitor’s web habits.
The Federal Trade Commission can go further. After an investigation of commercial data brokers, including how politicians use personal information, the FTC concluded in a report earlier this year that there’s a “fundamental lack of transparency” across the industry. But the department’s call for legislation to better protect consumers hasn’t resulted in any major action on Capitol Hill.