Political campaigns adopt surveillance capitalism at their own peril

Since the middle of the 20th century, commercial advertising and marketing techniques have made their way into the sphere of political campaigns. The tactics associated with surveillance capitalism – the commodification of personal data for profit as mastered by companies like Google and Facebook – have followed the same path.

surveillance capitalism

The race between competing political campaigns to out-collect, out-analyze and out-leverage voter data has raised concerns about the damaging effects it has on privacy and democratic participation, but also about the fact that all of this data, if seized by adversarial nation-states, opens up opportunities for affecting an election and sowing electoral chaos.

Let’s start by looking at the information available to political campaigns. Typically, everything begins and ends with the voter file, which is a compendium of information that’s rooted in public data about an individual voter, including their party affiliation and voting frequency. The goal for political operatives is to continually enrich this information and to do so better and faster than their political rivals.

Campaign field workers add to voter files with written notes reflecting conversations with and observations of actual voters. But the real magic happens when this data is augmented with other datasets that are purchased directly from a data broker or shared from outside political groups through the national party’s data exchange.

Consumer information supplied by data brokers typically draws from voters’ digital activities (such as smartphone app activity) as well as offline activities (like credit card purchases), often presenting hundreds of attributes. In addition to data on things like income and occupation, additional datapoints enable campaigns to infer a variety of lifestyle preferences and attitudes.

Within this category of consumer information, voters’ location histories have an outsized value to campaigns. For monetization purposes, many popular smartphone apps, with users’ permission, track their locations and then make this data available to data brokers or advertisers. This location data can reveal extremely private information, including where an individual lives and how often they attend religious services. Though the data is meant to be anonymous, companies can tie the data to an individual’s identity by matching their smartphone’s advertising ID number or their presumed home address with other information.

In addition to purchased data, presidential campaigns have another tool for getting information directly from supporters: the campaign app. These apps allow candidates to speak directly to voters and are intended to increase engagement through gamification or other means. But perhaps the more important driver is that these apps can serve as a huge source of data. The Trump 2020 app, for example, makes extensive permission requests, including for access to a smartphone’s identity and Bluetooth. The app can potentially sniff out much of the information on a user’s device, including their app usage.

With this trove of data at their disposal, the next step for campaigns is to combine the various datasets together into a single voter list, matching specific voters to the commercial data provided. The data is then run through custom-built models, the end result of which is that voters are put into granular segments and scored on certain issues.

Armed with these insights, campaigns can then find the voters they need to target, including voters who are potentially receptive but currently disengaged and voters who previously supported the candidate or party but have lost enthusiasm. Campaigns can also use their data learnings to boost turnout among decided voters, to register unregistered voters and even to suppress support for the opposition candidate.

But despite the value of this data to campaigns, securing it isn’t always a priority. The reality is that political campaigns are fast-moving operations where the focus is on reaching voters and raising money, not cybersecurity. As just one example of this poor data stewardship, close to 15 million records on Texas voters were found on an exposed and unsecured server just months before the 2018 midterm elections.

If another country were looking to meddle in our elections, such data could potentially be stolen and then weaponized in ways that could tip the scales for one preferred candidate or simply undermine democratic principles.

Some scenarios include:

  • The adversarial country dumps the stolen voter data online, creating a liability for the campaign from which the data was stolen (or at the very least, creating a distraction from the campaign’s messaging).
  • In an attempt to silence the opposing campaign’s high-profile supporters, the adversary doxes them using embarrassing or intensely private details gleaned from the stolen data.
  • The adversary spoofs the opposing campaign through text message, sharing disinformation about the candidate or the voting process directly to the candidate’s cadre of supporters.
  • Using a political action committee as a front, the adversary sets up a massive digital advertising scheme microtargeted to the opposition candidate’s softer supporters with messages designed to chip away at their enthusiasm for voting.
  • Leveraging psychometric insights from the stolen data, the adversary finds the opposing campaign’s ardent supporters who may be most susceptible to manipulation and then, posing as the campaign, lures the supporters into actions designed to make the campaign seem guilty by association once publicized.

In retrospect, the harvesting of data popularly associated with Cambridge Analytica wasn’t an aberration so much as it was a harbinger of the digital arms race to come in electoral politics, a race to gather as much information about citizens’ locations, habits and beliefs as possible for the purposes of better informing campaign strategies and delivering optimized messaging to individual voters.

In the absence of a national data privacy law or stricter campaign data regulations, there’s very little that any one of us can do, short of living off the grid, to prevent our personal data from being fodder for campaigns and threat actors alike. In the meantime, you may choose to reward the candidates who most respect your data and your privacy by giving them your vote.

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