Journalism in the Public Interest

Three Things We Don’t Know About Obama’s Massive Voter Database

President’s Obama campaign is collecting detailed data about its supporters. The campaign just won’t talk about it.


Obama posters and pins at a State of the Union house party in Chicago on Jan. 24, 2012. (Christopher Dilts for Obama for America)

President Obama's re-election campaign is reportedly building a massive database of information about potential supporters.

The database seems to bring together information about supporters gathered from all branches of the campaign — everything from an individual's donation records to volunteer activity to online interactions with the campaign — aimed at allowing the campaign to personalize every interaction with potential supporters.

Earlier this month, we built an interactive graphic showing how different Obama supporters received different variations of the same email — one way that the campaign may be using data to personalize messages.

We can't describe the Obama campaign's database with certainty because the campaign won't talk about it. Citing concerns about letting Republicans learn its tactics, the campaign declined our request for comment — as it has with other outlets — about what data the campaign collects and what it's doing with the data. The campaign did emphasize that, regardless of what information it gathers, it has never sold voter data or shared its voter database with other candidates.

Here's a guide to what we know — and don't know — about the information Obama is collecting about voters.

1. What information is the campaign collecting about individual supporters?

We know only some of the data it's collecting, but it is clearly collecting a lot.

The Obama campaign has hired a corporate data-mining expert, Rayid Ghani, to serve as its "chief scientist." Ghani has previously researched how to use a retailer's record of customer purchases to predict what a particular customer will buy during a given shopping trip — the same kind of data crunching that Target has apparently used to predict whether shoppers are pregnant. The campaign is continuing to hire "analytics engineers" and other data experts.

Some of the most important data that campaigns need are already public. State voter files include voters' names, addresses and voting histories. Campaigns don't know whom you voted for. But they know when you voted, when you didn't and, in some states, your race and party registration.

The Obama campaign website asks supporters for basic information, starting with your email address and ZIP code. If you sign up for an account on the site or register as a volunteer, you may also be asked for your mailing address, phone number and occupation.

But the campaign's privacy policy says the campaign has the right to gather far more — information about how you use the campaign website, such as what you click on and which pages you view; data about how you interact with campaign email messages; and personal information you submit as part of blog comments, interactive forums or contests and games on the campaign's websites.

Logging on to using Facebook gives the campaign permission to access your name, profile picture, gender, networks, list of friends and any other information you have made public.

How much information is the campaign tracking and connecting back to you? The campaign won't give an overarching answer to that.

That doesn't mean it is tracking everything. For instance, the campaign website features an interactive graphic that allows users to see how the health-care reform law might benefit them. To do so, users click through several options, selecting whether they have private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or no insurance at all, how many people are in their families, and what their annual household incomes are.

According to the campaign's privacy policy, the campaign may track how individual users interact with the campaign website. But the campaign said that none of the information entered into the health-care interactive site was linked back to individual supporters.

It's worth noting that, as many websites do, the campaign also works with third-party ad vendors that use web cookies to track your browsing online. This enables them to serve you ads on different sites — and to target their ads based on the sites you visit.

2. What will happen to all this personal information once the campaign is over?

It's hard to know.

According to the privacy policy, the campaign reserves the right to share the personal information it collects "with candidates, organizations, groups or causes that we believe have similar political viewpoints, principles or objectives."

The campaign wouldn't comment about any future plans but said its track record demonstrated its approach to privacy protection.

After the 2008 election, Obama's list of 13 million email addresses was not given to other candidates or used by the White House. Obama launched "Organizing for America," a Democratic National Committee outreach program that drew on Obama's wide network of supporters to generate support for the president's agenda.

"This campaign has always and will continue to be an organization that respects and takes care to protect information that people share with us," spokeswoman Katie Hogan said.

But the privacy policy shows the campaign is reserving the right to share its increasingly rich database. And some experts are wondering what Obama will do with it once the campaign ends.

"As a voter, I would feel a lot more comfortable if campaigns gave voters the option of whether or not they could pass their information on to other groups," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident, a site focusing on how technology affects politics.

From a voter's perspective, "the fact that I gave the Obama campaign $10 for six months, or emailed the campaign 10 times, may not be information that I want anyone else to know," Rasiej said.

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said she's "never heard anyone complain" about Obama's 2008 campaign giving away personal information.

"The success of the Obama campaign in 2008 in getting millions of people to log on to their website to give personal information and volunteer and do all sorts of things for the campaign hinged on trust," she said. "People did not believe that that information was going to go anywhere."

Any choice to share supporters' information should take their preferences into account, Coney said. A campaign could easily create a checklist of politicians and organizations, allowing users to grant permission to share with some groups and not with others.

3. Is there any way to erase yourself from the campaign's database?

As far as we can tell, no.

President Obama's "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights," released last month, says that consumers' right to control their personal data "includes a right to withdraw consent to use personal data that the company controls."

The Obama campaign does make it easy to unsubscribe from email, text messages or newsletters. But we couldn't find any way to take yourself off its database — and the campaign wouldn't comment. There's also no apparent way to see what information the campaign is storing about you.

In a report on consumer privacy released March 26, the Federal Trade Commission called on companies to "provide consumers access to the data collected about them."

Both the "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" and the FTC's report are meant to serve as guidelines for future legislation regulating companies' use of consumer data. How any laws will apply to political campaigns isn't clear.

A White House official said the Privacy Bill of Rights "applies to how businesses handle consumers' personal data online, and will impact all organizations using personal information collected through commercial means," including campaigns.

Obama's privacy policy notes that users, just as they can at any website, can disable cookies if they don't want their browsing tracked. And to the campaign's credit, EPIC's Lillie Coney said, the privacy policy also includes a link to the Network Advertising Initiative, which allows users to control which digital advertisers are tracking them.

Great post !

In 2008 I wrote an Op Ed in the Washington Post calling for a voter privacy bill of rights.

Shaun Dakin
Founder - The National Political Do Not Contact Registry
Founder - Privacy Camp
Founder - PrivChat

I was an early supporter and donor of Presidente Zero in 2008. I wouldn’t vote for him in a thousand years and intend to cast my ballot for some third candidate like Buddy Roemer or Gary Johnson. How many people like me are there on this list?

I think his campaign is in for a rude awakening.

I sometimes wonder why people continue to question what individual data is being collected, when it is common knowledge, that all of us are already in several different data bases. Get over it or stay off of the internet.We are all up for grabs.
I voted for Obama and I intend to vote for him again!!!!!!!!!!

I have similar thoughts about what and how conservative campaigns get information about me. 

Nothing in my available public and private information says that I support Republicans, their leaders the Tea Party and Rush Limbaugh, or any right wing efforts.

I am sure they must know that I would never vote for any of the corporate, far right, or theocratic agendas they are promoting…

And yet I keep getting requests from the far right, for survey responses, requests for campaign funds, far right propaganda, and robocalls all the time.

Janet Jenks Sloan

March 27, 2012, 5:51 p.m.

To reply to Russ Winter, I just checked in to a Comfort Inn and was asked for my telephone number.  While they could not identify my mobile number, they did identify my home number.  With so much information, apparently public knowledge, to service providers, do you question that a political data base has you information?  We are far too transparent a society, and yet we have done it to ourselves. I cannot address the concerns this raises at present, either for myself or anyone else, but consider what this means.  And consider, that if you throw away your franchise, your right to vote, you have no option but to accept what is happening to us as a country and society.  Privacy is a right we need to restore.  I cannot see any other way to do this than to vote responsibly.

Ann has it right.
This is a non-story except for the interest people may have in how the Obama campaign is preparing to move ahead.
The fact that some former supporters are dropping out is no surprise, either.
Ms. Harris and others like her apparently believe that Mr. Obama had a magic wand when they voted for him. Perhaps they forgot there were other players in government who have a say in policy.
Ms. Harris is now entitled to equal pay for equal work thanks to Mr. Obama, but she forgets that. 
She has improved health care, but she forgets that.
No matter. Mr. Obama will, like most president’s, face the task of convincing voters he deserves a second term. If he does, he may get it. If he cannot, he won’t.
And we’ll have someone else to be disappointed in.

Great story! It’s always important to know what sort of personal information is being gathered about us, how it’s being gathered and how it’s being used. It’s especially important when that information may be available to officials at the highest levels of government. Information is power, and power can be abused. Both Obama and Romney must understand that they will be held personally responsible for any misconduct that results from the data mining activities of their campaigns.

If you don’t vote for Obama, then vote for Romney and see if I will have any talks with him.

During the last campaign, I gave $500.  I listed only my work address and phone number as the contact.

A few months later about a week before the election, someone showed up at the front door of my house and thanked me for my donation and gave me a sheet with directions to my polling place and asked if I needed a ride.

So, I think they were pretty active in data mining a long time ago.

Probably as a result of my donating far more than I could afford to Obama’s 2008 campaign, I’ve received and continue receiving a barrage of donation requests for this round. I wish I’d kept all of those emails since they are a thorough example of every conceivable argument as to why I need to fork out donations now - sent by Obama, Michelle, Joe Biden, assorted members of Obama’s campaign staff - and presumably I’ll shortly receive one from the family dog.

I have donated once so far to the current campaign, but went directly to his site rather than responding through one of the annoying emails. I will donate more as the campaign heats up. No, I don’t want to enter a lottery to get flown to the White House to have dinner with Barrack. The man has far too many other obligations that need tending to. I’d rather my campaign dollars be spent wisely for campaign purposes.

It is fradulent reporting to suggest the Obama campaign collects this data and not mention the vast databases that are also in use by the Republicans and their private industry backers. Both sides collect and use vast amounts of voter data in modern elections. Stating one side does and not mentioning the other sides similar activities is extremely poor research and journalism, if this piece can be called either with a straight face.

About two years ago, Google announced it was working with the DNC on a unique marketing concept for the 2012 election campaign.  The RNC jumped in and asked about it, but was met with very opaque answers.

If there is a single company who can profile individuals by what they read, what they post and where they go, it is Google.  They have even claimed they can predict whether you will buy pizza on the way home from work, by tracking your movements from your cell phone.  And Eric Schmidt, has been a frequent visitor to the White House.  The back scratching between the White House and Google is utterly amazing.  The FCC whitewashed the Google Street View wi-fi intercepts that had Germany about about to shut them down when they refused a court order to turn over the data they had purloined.  And the White House has pressured EU countries to back off on anti-trust efforts against the company.  So look to Google when you wonder what the Obama’s campaign is up to.

Google’s motto is “Do no Evil”.  The big question is, does “Do no Evil” apply to them or to us?

Rachel Silverstein

March 28, 2012, 9:28 a.m.

I look forward to voting for Obama in 2012.  I ferverently believe he will make sure that rich people pay for things I can’t afford as a member of the middle class. I see no reason that I should have to work long hours when others are making 150k when I make only 80K.  He will equalize our paychecks in the form of tax rebates and subsidies and for that I will gladly contribute a few dollars to his campaign in order to see the rich people pay my fair share!

Penelope Foran

March 28, 2012, 9:40 a.m.

As an activist who walked out on an Organizing for America meeting because I object to being given marching orders from men wearing blueteeth (obviously the better NOT to hear the folks in the room with them), I have always felt that the data collected should belong to the volunteers who collected that data. 

There are many local issues that could draw more support and turnout if local groups could access local Obama supporters from 2008. In my opinion we need more grassroots participation in the political process to effectively energize the citizenry. And if we don’t get the grassroots involved at the local level, we miss opportunities to grow a progressive movement for change.

In a town like Albuquerque, where it seems one has to do something verging on violence to get any real media attention, it’s a challenge to reach out to others who might share a concern about a particular issue.

So I wish that Obama would have been less stingy with the data we collected in 2008.

Steven Gilbert

March 28, 2012, 9:59 a.m.

Funny how worried liberals get a privacy issues when the “offending” parties are on the conservative side of the divide,  but give their own ilk a free pass.  Right out of Orwell; some are more equal than others.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

March 28, 2012, 10:18 a.m.

Unless we have been living under rocks for the past 40 years, we are all on multiple “lists”.  The week after I became eligible for Medicare, I received a flyer in the mail informing me that I just might be eliglible for a “power chair” at “little or no cost to me”. I’m still waiting for them to upgrade their offer to a golf cart.
With respect to political solicitations:  Although I am a REGISTERED Libertarian, I receive numerous mail solicitations from both Democrat (liberal) and Republican (conservative) organizations asking me to fill out meaningless surveys and contribute what I can to stop the country from going to hell.  If the solicitation includes a postage paid return envelope, I am only too glad to help out.  I dutifuly fill out the questionaire and put it in the return envelope.  But before I seal the envelope, I also insert an envelope sized piece of cardboard to which I have glued $0.20 in pennies to add some “heft”.
What can I say?  I’m retired, have a lot of time on my hands, and I want to make a difference.

There are some very interesting perspectives here on campaign data use—thanks for sharing.

As some of you have noted, both Democratic and Republican political campaigns have long relied on many kinds of voter data. Some of George W. Bush’s success in the 2004 election has been attributed to strategic use of voter data and microtargeting. A good introduction to political data use is this 2007 Washington Post article by Chris Cillizza:

As always, the more your comments respond to the particular subject of the article—in this case, campaign data use—the more relevant they will be to other readers. Very basic, and makes the comments section more valuable for everyone.

I really don’t want to be tracked, but wouldn’t mind if the tracking is done on me by the Obama campaign. I’ll trust anything with the name ‘Obama’ on it. I have been watching intensely, and so far,  I’m pleased with what the President has been able to accomplish and other important changes he continues to fight for. I know what he is up against - a ‘cash’n carry,’ congress fraught with deep-rooted corrupt political practices, that has sworn not to serve the interest of the people who elected them but to oppose whatever plan the President put forward.

I supported Obama in 2008, sent money and had a panic attack I was so involved.  I was disappointed when I heard the speech he gave in Berlin.  I was more disappointed when he signed the financial reform bill and left open the backdoor for more of the same, especially the speculators, not putting back the Glass Stegall Act or change the Commodities Futures Modernization Act.  From then on it went downhill, the Patriot Act and the NDAA, the treatment of whistleblowers, the continuance with the wars, the secret prisons.  The hiring of the very same people who put this country into the abyss.  Nope, voting for Ron Paul.

Steve W from Ford

March 28, 2012, 11:11 a.m.

If Obama truly stood for “transparency” and “trust” his campaign would allow people to get out of the database and give them the option of NOT having their info shared with ANYONE. He is, of course, actually standing for neither so he does nothing. After all, if he actually meant the things he says to lure in the “rubes” he would be returning the Bill Maher contribution.
Perhaps some people did not understand what an overt liar and manipulator Obama was the first time around but what is your excuse this time?

For those of you explaining that we shouldn’t look at the man behind he curtain, it’s worth adding a wrinkle to the discussion, which is that the government has been making it policy to demand user records for “homeland security” purposes with a gag order.

If you’re fine that Obama knows everything about you, are you OK with an Obama opponent secretly subpoenaing that data?  How about if some hacker broke into their computers, as has happened to dozens of major companies in the last year alone?

And Ann specifically, how about all the data collectors get off my Internet?  When I started out—and I was here first—the only data that COULD be collected was voluntarily given, and the request was rare..  Then big business saw a resource to exploit by tracking everyone, and companies like Facebook and Google convinced you that this is normal and that you shouldn’t expect privacy or security.

It does amaze me that we have somehow landed in a culture where we’re supposed to turn over information to anybody resembling an authority without question, but they refuse to answer to us.  If we don’t draw the line here, it’ll only get worse and expand to the outside world.  Because why shouldn’t some shady guy in a trenchcoat take pictures of everybody who enters the local park and copy down their license plate numbers?  If you don’t like it, just stay home, right?

“President Obama’s re-election campaign is reportedly building a massive database of information about potential supporters.”

I’ve been working on the database.  We’ve broken it down into these categories:

1) Useful union idiots like the SEIU
2) Anyone horrible ignorant of American history and culture
3) Anyone in the “GIMMIE !!!!!” crowd
4) Anyone in the “Hate America First” crowd
5) Disingenuous Leftist/Marxist bottom-feeders
6) Dopey liberals who think with their feelings
7) Black gang-bangers
8) Low IQ (sort of redundant…see #7)
9) The dopey Hollywood crowd
10) Muslims

We figure every Obama supporter will fall into one or more of those categories, eh?

Obama has done a great job exposing and proving himself a criminal fraud and his party nothing more than a criminal organization the fiends for power and tax payer dollars.

  They have proven themselves unqualified, incapable and unworthy of running this Country or holding positions of power at any level of Government for that matter. Criminal frauds and thieving liars belong in prison not positions of power.

Our government is being hijacked by Christianist fascists, and ProPublica is worried about the Obama campaign? No wonder you have attracted commenters seized by paranoia.

Fantastic article! Thank you.

I stand with Russ Winter. I campaigned and voted for President Obama in 2008 (even traveled to his inauguration), but not this time. Lying is not a trait I expected to see in the President. This year I will vote my conscience, as I always do, and I choose the Green Party presidential candidate (likely Jill Stien).

Some will say I am “throwing away” my vote. To them I say, mind your own business.

Regarding our hypocrisy, Steven Gilbert makes good points. Democrats say, “But look at what the the Republicans collect” and vice versa. If one side is wrong for thing X, the other is too.

And, finally, I agree with John (12:13 pm). We cry about political campaign data mining and mis/use, yet we let Google and Facebook get away with murder? Whatever.

It is a provable fact that the Obama 2008 email address list has gotten into the hands of other Democratic candidates. During the past 2 years, an address I gave only to the campaign got political spam from other Democrats and no other mail at all. I disabled the address a few weeks ago, as it was clear that it hadn’t just been given to a few allies but had been intentionally pimped out to any Democrat stupid enough to buy a mailing list. It is conceivable that the list escaped the campaign via internal theft by a partisan, but if it had been stolen by a common spammer it would have gotten more junk and more types of junk.

And FWIW: the addresses I’ve given solely to ProPublica have never been spammed. :)

Linda J .... No wonder you have attracted commenters seized by paranoia….

You should educate yourself about paranoia. To refuse to be spyed on is not paranoia, it’s just good sense.

Anyway, if voting could change something, it would be illegal… If you want change, don’t vote.. refuse to be a sheep…

Wow, some of you folks on here who are blindly willing to follow and let Obama and his campaign mine any facet of your life scare the heck out of me… And why is it predominantly the women on this thread who are so willing?? Thankfully I see some of you only get fooled once and will not be falling this fools agenda a second time (especially since the agenda he advocated the first time around never came to fruition - Thank God)...

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
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