Journalism in the Public Interest

Is Your Neighbor a Democrat? Obama Has an App for That

A new mobile app puts public information about voters at your fingertips.

Screenshots taken from two different searches of the Obama for America app, which displays the names and addresses of nearby Democratic voters.

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.

clarence swinney

Aug. 3, 2012, 3:34 p.m.

stop borrowing=burn tax book=$1100B=balanced budget
start anew—exemptions serve a common good not fat wallet

such a simple answer do it

How long before someone is raped or burgled because of this app?

Miguel Zambrano

Aug. 3, 2012, 3:47 p.m.

well, that explains why the address I use on line is getting emails from the Democrats when I am registered for Democratic party emails with my private email address. So where did they find my email? Facebook?

Does that mean I can vote twice?

I forgot to mention…Democrat = more likely to not have firearms.

Yeah…this can’t end well.

Usually roll my eyes when people talk about cookies and the like being unwarranted invasions of privacy. But, even though, this is technically “public information,” it is disconcerting.

Come to think of it, requiring revealing party preference is unconscionable. Am very open to enabling people to vote in party primaries in a manner where party preference does not have to be publicly disclosed.

I don’t know why everyone is so eager to register something like your political leanings. In this day and age, it would be best to keep silent or better yet, change them.

How long till 0bozo creates the app showing where all the conservatives live, so the angry liberals and their minions can use it for nefarious purposes?

Another fun thing to do would be to change them frequently or switch them for pollsters. Elections should not be so fixed that they know who will win before it even begins. Where’s the fun in that?

The Clintidote

Aug. 3, 2012, 3:55 p.m.

Knowing where the democRats scurry is useful when seeking to avoid the parasites.

Imagine how many little blue flags one might see in the cemeteries using this app, considering the number of registered dead people on the roles last year!

Funny, people are worried that Democrats are going to be attacked because of this app, when the news of the last four years show it is Democrats doing the attacking.

The Clintidote

Aug. 3, 2012, 3:58 p.m.

“You didn’t build that!” - some greedy, incompetent democRat politician

Is the app named Find a Stupid Useless Person?

The data is inacurate… Hell, I was a registerd “Democat” for 40 yrs becaue it was the only way I could vote for most of the canadates in my state. But I never voted for a Democat running aganist a Republican.

How does it perform in graveyards?

OfA obamas’foney acornies

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.”

I wouldn’t want anyone to know if I was a democrat either.

The fact that odummy relies on this kind of garbage is another testimony of his complete suckage as president and leader of the free world.  What a gutless coward to have to depend on every exhaustive angle to try to hold on to his addiction….giant douche bag

This is a really really bad idea. Age, sex, and political affiliation in one convenient map. 100% certain that there will be criminal / douchebags putting this to good use. Wow.

Question comes to mind: if this can be done so easily, can the app be adjusted to show voters registered as Republicam, Independent, etc? And if so, do residents need to worry about retribution from some idiot from the opposite party harrassing, or harming said residents? Kind of scary to think about!

good thing they dont know where the repubs live

Maxwell Smart

Aug. 3, 2012, 4:09 p.m.

OK Chief, Lower the cone of silence !”
CIA in Syria Are you kidding me, didnt Hillary
tell that dictator guy the US means business?
I cant go there Cheif it just wouldnt look right.
Go or be fired well ok do I have a choice?
Yes, the shoe phone works great, but Ill need a disquise
A Batman mask, yes, that is perfect !!!

If you want to be a baby killing child molesting mooch off of the government democrat, best you own up to it.
Tables were turned, you would demand the same.
Now be a good minion and donate to keep you Obama Master fed and in power so he can send you his social justice scraps from the big kids table.

“My neighbors across the street can know that I’m a Democrat. I’m not sure I like that.”

Yeah, I wouldn’t want anyone to know that either

I am creeped out by this. I’m really glad I am not a democrat.

Why in Sam Hill [Yes, there really was a Sam Hill] would anyone want to disclose that they were a democrap???  They have become a joke under Odumbo, Reid, Pelosi, Schumer, Weiner, Biden, Frank, Dodd, ad nauseum. Better to keep quiet, not draw too much attention to yourself, and religiously attend your counseling sessions.

Greaaaaaat. now we will know who the mooches are in the nhood

Just one more class warfare tactic by Obama, is he going to pit neighbor against neighbor now. What a transparent kind of guy. What a sleazy campaign he runs. but what should you expect, he was raised with dirty politics of Chicago and I know I lived there.

Thanks Obama! Now Conservatives have a tool to identify people that need to be talked to so that they can begin to see the error of their ways and brought back into the light.

Slippery slope will take this information to a place that we have never been before. And then it will be to late. Perhaps, it is already to late. Cameras, scanners, GPS, and mag tape are ubiquitous.  I have a sign on the front-never-used door, Do Not Knock, We Believe in God and the Second Amendment.

Alessandro Machi

Aug. 3, 2012, 4:27 p.m.

I’m a democrat who won’t forget the fraud race between Obama and Clinton. I don’t plan on voting Democrat until Hillary Clinton’s name is on the ballot for president.

This is not the best place for this, but will propublica consider doing a story on Debt Neutrality?
or, you can learn more and sign the petition here…

The point being that neither political party will support debt neutrality even though it may be the best way to “stimulate” the economy without a government handout.

So, given this information, how many operatives form one party or the other, in a close election in a swing state, will spend the night before election day out slashing tires on the opposition’s members’ cars?

If one person can’t drive to go vote, it’s a bad thing for that person.  If 500 or 10,000 can’t drive to go vote, it can throw an election.  Just ask Al Gore about his Florida chad-counting operation.

If I found out that I was surrounded by democrats, I would move as fast as I could. I would want neighbors who I could depend on not to rob me since they obviously see nothing wrong with using government coercion to rob me and redistribute my property to themselves.
Just think what a despotic leader would do with this kind of info.

Obama is a monster.  He is a Stalinist.


Aug. 3, 2012, 4:32 p.m.

Looks like Mr. Kiel has been dredging the bottom of the journalism pond… these lists have been available for years.  Dunn & Bradstreet come immediately to mind… Paul, what happened to your credibility? 

Scare tactics - really?  Voter rosters are for sale. Everyone knows that!

A Guy in L.A.

Aug. 3, 2012, 4:32 p.m.

More evil stuff provided by Google. I wonder if Larry and Sergei’s personal information is available the way ours is…

This president, if that’s what you call him, is a creep.  He’ll do anything to steal an election.

What a wonderful app ... now all the Democrats can spend their time calling OTHER Democrats to re-assure each other on their voting!!!

Alessandro Machi

Aug. 3, 2012, 4:39 p.m.

Hi KatieAnnieOakley.

I think Mr. Kiel did mention that the lists have been available for years. I think the point was now with apps people don’t even need to show up to headquarters and get a list, they can just show up on your street, all they need is their own wireless computer device to find you.

I wonder if the next step will be to pretend one is with the opposing party and then act totally obnoxious.

James Everyman

Aug. 3, 2012, 4:42 p.m.

Why do they even need an app for this? Go to the getto for the Dems and then the nice suburb areas for the Conservatives.

Well now it appears that Democrats or Republicans mind you could use actual union thug tactics and come to an individual home bearing gifts or should I say swift kicks if you happen to not be registered or vote the Correct Way, God bless America. Jimmy hoffa would be proud. Lenin abd Stalin are smiling from the hell they sre burning in, snd Kruschev is nodding his head knowing that he was right l slobg….2012 is Orwell’s 1984



Frank Roberts

Aug. 3, 2012, 4:47 p.m.

This app will allow all the weird ones to be listed

Do illegal aliens who vote illegally count, because that is what is happening in CA.  Help we are being overrun and Obama is helping because these illegals vote Democrat.  Fraud!  Beware! Obama is a fake.

Sweet.  Now we can see who is sucking up all of our hard earned tax dollars locally.

Your party membership is not private. It never was. How yu vote is private.

Awesome I love people knocking on my door as I cling to my bible and 1911….love it….

How long till this backfires, when 20 democrat names show up in the empty lot next to your house?  Who do you call? the election officials or the Cops to dig up the bodies??


Aug. 3, 2012, 4:56 p.m.

Creepy….  But kinda funny, aren’t these people claiming they are against voter ID but they don’t have a problem registering nor do they care about privacy.  Robo calls are going to be the least of our problems, think back to the scary census creeps.

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