Technology

hiawatha bray | tech lab

Candidates want your data, along with your vote

The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wrote me the other day. She wants to know my birthday. I want to know how she got my e-mail address.

I haven’t donated a dime to Clinton or anyone else involved in the latest edition of America’s quadrennial Race to the Bottom. But the Clinton campaign somehow obtained my name and my personal e-mail address. In fact, her team probably knows everything about me that’s worth knowing. Meanwhile, the campaign of GOP candidate Donald Trump has somehow gotten hold of my Boston Globe address and is asking me to help Make America Great Again.

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Clearly one or both of these candidates are wasting their time on me. But which one? With each election cycle, political data scientists get better at figuring out if I’m worth their time — and you, too. The latest digital technologies let campaigners target their pitches with ever-greater precision. Political ads are becoming more and more personal, and not just via e-mail. The pop-up ads on your smartphone and PC are becoming personalized as well, and TV commercials are headed the same way.

There’s an upside to this — fewer ads from candidates who get on our nerves. But that’s also a downside, as we’ll get less exposure to alternative points of view. And what happens to the data collected by the campaigns? It turns out that politicians are often remarkably indifferent to our privacy.

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For instance, if you made an online donation to a candidate who lost in the primaries, he’s probably paying off campaign debts by selling your e-mail address or other personal data to the highest bidder, perhaps another politician or a private business.

“In general all the candidates reserve the right to share your personal information with third parties,” said Craig Spiezle, executive director of the Online Trust Alliance (OTA), a marketing industry trade group.

The federal government has blocked similar moves to sell e-mail lists by corporations such as Radio Shack, which has filed for bankruptcy, but political campaigns get the all-clear.

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“Candidates who talk about effective public policy — shouldn’t they have to meet the same standards as private business does?” said Spiezle, who favors tougher curbs on the trade in voter data.

Election marketers can use your e-mail to do more than ask for money. It can also help them generate precisely targeted political ads on your computer or smartphone.

Say you use your e-mail address to log in at an online retailer. This store puts a tracking cookie on your machine but also notifies a marketing company that the cookie belongs to you, personally. The marketers now know exactly whom they’re dealing with. Yes, they’ll know that you shop at Amazon and hang out at Facebook. But they’ll also discover real-world stuff: that you live in Newton, for example, drive a Ford, bought 20 books last year and are a registered Democrat.

Some of this data are already in public records, including voter registration rolls, that candidates have long trolled for lists. Still more can be bought from “data brokers” such as Acxiom Corp. or Experian PLC, which track the activities of hundreds of millions of Americans and sell the results to pretty much anyone who’ll pay.

Acxiom, for instance, purports to know whether you own or rent your home, whether your household makes charitable donations and what kinds of magazines you buy. Look for yourself by signing up at aboutthedata.com, where Acxiom will let you see what it knows about you.

Data brokers strip out your name, address, and other traditional identifiers before they sell these profiles. But marketers can still match that data against the information they’ve collected from your tracking cookie to create a rich, detailed portrait of your life. So they may not know your name, but through your browsing history, buying habits, and other bread crumbs, they can make a pretty educated guess about which ads to show you.

The tactics are little different from those used by companies to peddle their products, but their application to American politics dismays Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, an Internet activist group.

“You’re talking about the creation of political dossiers on individuals,” he said. “It’s time the alarm bells sounded.”

Chester wants a law that would ban brokers from selling our data to political campaigns without our permission. But he sees little hope of getting it done. “The same politicians who’d have to pass the privacy laws,” he said, “are using this data to get elected and reelected.”

Meanwhile the databases become ever more precise, enabling political and commercial marketers to fire off ads with laser-like precision. When I click on a webpage today, the ads are instantly chosen to appeal to a middle-aged, computer-loving black guy. But there are many such people in the world; in a few years, the ads will be targeted to me, personally.

And not just on my computer or smartphone. Marketing companies are experimenting with precisely targeted TV ads. My smart TV will tell the cable or satellite company who I am and what I like. In exchange, I’ll see a customized package of commercials, presumably ads for camera equipment and spy movies. And I’ll know that marketers really understand me when I turn on the TV in an election year and see no political ads at all.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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