Obama's Approach to Big Data: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Politicians' Policy Decisions May Stymie Tools That Got Them Elected

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Credit: Bloomberg

One of the keys to success for President Barack Obama's reelection bid was its masterful use of data. But lost in the hype is this: The administration supports a browser-based do not track system that , if pervasive, would throw a wrench into the data-collection tactics that empowered the campaign.

Even today BarackObama.com features data-tracking cookies from several online ad and analytics firms.

The Mitt Romney and Obama campaigns spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2012 on data and related services to enhance their own voter contact information, inform their online and offline messaging and target ads. At the same time, Congress is inspecting the practices of firms that buy, sell and filter consumer data for corporate marketers.

"The Obama administration and the GOP should confront head-on the privacy issues raised by [their] far-reaching use of digital profiling and targeting data," argued privacy advocate Jeffrey Chester, founder of the Center for Digital Democracy. "It would be unfortunate for the administration's work to advance Do Not Track and other key safeguards if they failed to tackle the use of powerful data targeting technologies by political campaigns."

Industry and privacy wonks actually agree
It's a rare occurrence, but both Mr. Chester and the ad industry are in agreement on one thing: They both appreciate the attention the Obama data machine is getting. Privacy groups want to raise awareness of data collection and usage in the hopes of generating public support for curbing what they see as an increasingly infiltrative violation of personal privacy by marketers and the mushrooming data industry.

"Protecting the privacy of consumers and citizens should require policymakers from both sides to confront the civil liberties implications of what has been unleashed," added Mr. Chester, noting that the 2012 campaigns should divulge what data they collected, how they targeted ads and what will happen to the information now that the election is over.

Industry players, especially their Capitol Hill lobbyists, aim to convince legislators that the very data practices some of them criticize are helping them and their colleagues win races.

"Big data isn't going to help Todd Aken," said Mike Zaneis, general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, referring to the disgraced Congressman from Missouri who lost his Senate campaign after claiming women can ward off pregnancy resulting from "legitimate rape." Continued Mr. Zaneis, "But the Obama campaign used a lot of online data and a tremendous amount of offline data to go precinct-by -precinct to get-out-the-vote."

Third-party tags
More than a week after the election, BarackObama.com houses an array of third-party tags that track users for ad targeting and campaign and site analytics. Yesterday, around fifteen ad company tags were surfaced by Evidon's Ghostery software, including tags from BlueKai, which calls itself a "big data activation solution," and Appnexus, which among other things allows advertisers to use a variety of user behavioral data to target ads to those users on Facebook.

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns used social-media-widget and data provider ShareThis to target fundraising ads and identify issues and trends swing state voters were interested in, according to ShareThis CEO Kurt Abrahamson. The company tracks when people visit web pages and share them on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or other popular social sites and allows advertisers to target ads using that anonymized information.

Clashing goals of campaigning and governing
Data tracking tools and techniques that have helped legislators on both sides of the aisle build supporter lists, generate donations and get out the vote could be stymied by a do-not-track browser standard or restrictive privacy legislation.

In February, the Federal Trade Commission and the ad industry announced they'd work together with browser companies to develop a DNT standard. At the same time, the U.S. Commerce Department introduced a consumer privacy bill of rights that guided companies to provide individual control over data collection, better data security measures, and transparency of data use, and also called for "a reasonable amount of data collection by companies." Secretary of Commerce John Bryson said at the time the department would work with Congress to implement the privacy bill of rights -- which some deem to be supportive of industry's self-regulatory approach -- through legislation.

The Digital Advertising Alliance, a large coalition of ad industry trade groups, has conducted an "ongoing dialogue with the FTC as recently as yesterday to figure out how to implement the [DNT] standard," said Stu Ingis, counsel to the DAA, on Wednesday. The DAA oversees the industry's Ad Choices program, which allows people to opt-out from online ad targeting through display ads that include the group's small triangular symbol. It's not entirely clear whether the FTC is confident that the DAA's self-regulatory program is enough to protect consumer privacy.

As reported by Politico earlier this month, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said, "If by the end of the year or early next year, we haven't seen a real Do Not Track option for consumers, I suspect the commission will go back and think about whether we want to endorse legislation." Mr. Leibowitz is expected by beltway insiders to step down at the end of the year, and some believe his goal to finalize a DNT standard before he leaves is pressurizing the situation.

A free pass for political data?
Enter the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus. The group recently received responses to inquiries into several data firms that manage and analyze, and in some cases buy and sell, online and offline consumer data. Nine firms -- Acxiom, Epsilon, Equifax, Experian, Harte-Hanks, Intelius, Fair Isaac, Merkle, and Meredith Corp. -- submitted lengthy and often vague answers to a series of questions about their data businesses and practices.

"Many questions about how these data brokers operate have been left unanswered, particularly how they analyze personal information to categorize and rate consumers," said lawmakers in a joint statement regarding the companies' responses.

Absent from the list of data firms questioned were similar companies that deal mainly in voter file and political information that is often enhanced with consumer demographic, shopping and other data. For instance, NGP Van, the Democratic data powerhouse favored by the Obama team was not part of the inquiry. The Obama campaign and DNC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars with NGP Van this election cycle alone. The firm matches its voter data with data from TargetSmart, which offers "the richest set of consumer and interest data, allowing the most sophisticated targeting," according to the NGP Van site.

Other political data firms left out of the inquiry include Catalist, another Democratic data firm; Campaign Grid, which offers Republican data and online ad targeting; and Aristotle, a well-established non-partisan political data company. People involved with the congressional inquiry deny that political data firms were left off the list for any strategic reason.

In a press release about the data broker responses, the Privacy Caucus stated it "will push for whatever steps are necessary to make sure Americans know how this industry operates and are granted control over their own information."

Rep. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and Caucus co-chair, has sponsored a Do Not Track Kids Act and a mobile privacy bill.

Observers don't expect a privacy bill to be passed anytime soon; if that does happen, it may not apply to political campaigns or groups anyway. For instance, political messages are exempt from CAN-SPAM laws, and political organizations are not restricted by the Do Not Call Registry.

"Often when data laws are being proposed and put forward, the politicians exempt themselves," said Don Hinman, senior VP for data strategy at Epsilon, which gets some of its data from political advertisers but mainly is a purveyor of consumer information.

Mr. Ingis considers it exemption for political messages to be a first amendment issue. "It would be very hard for such a limitation on political messages to be restricted. . . . and I think that would have been true in the context of Do Not Call if they would have gone there," he said.

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