The campaign to reelect President Barack Obama has taken canvassing to the next technological level by including a map that shows users names and addresses of Democratic voters in the area.
The feature is part of a free iPhone app released last week called Obama for America. The map lists the first name, last initial and party affiliation — in this case, all Democrats — of nearby voters. Once volunteers download the app, they can look for homes to canvass nearby and then send the information they collect back to the main campaign.
The app includes a script that outlines how to canvass, and collects information such as how likely a person is to vote for Obama and whether or not he or she would like to volunteer for the campaign.
At least one privacy advocate, Shaun Dakin — who has been critical of the campaign outreach efforts in the past — said that the app doesn’t sit well with him.
“It doesn’t make it right just because it’s legal,” he said. “Anybody can get this. There’s no way to prevent anyone from downloading this.”
Including age in the demographic information, he said, is particularly troubling to him because it isn’t necessary to canvass and opens seniors and others to targeted scams.
But other privacy advocates said that the campaign is well within its rights to publish the data. And with more data than ever at the fingertips of political campaigns, experts said this election could include even more initiatives like this.
“Party affiliation is public information, available through the state voter registration records. I don't see the problem there,” said Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg. “Still, both campaigns are digging deep into the private lives of voters. It will only get more interesting as the November election approaches.”
When asked about the privacy implications of this feature, Obama campaign said that this sort of information has previously been available online to anyone as well as to campaign field workers in the past and is “100 percent consistent with publicly available voter rolls.”
“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 associated with our field activities, including online tools such as the OFA app. Any voter who requests not to be contacted again is immediately removed from any lists provided to volunteers,” a campaign aide said in a statement.
Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Mitt Romney’s campaign, said that the campaign would “continue to roll out mobile features over the course of the campaign” but did not elaborate on whether the Republican campaign would introduce a similar feature.
Center for Democracy and Technology privacy expert Justin Brookman said that he understands that there would be some discomfort around the app: “Historically,” he said, “there have been rules for people to participate anonymously in elections.”
But, he said, it’s difficult to argue that there should be limitations on repurposing public information. For example, he said, pharmaceutical companies have a right to access some doctors’ records to target their messaging. It would be difficult, he said, to argue that campaigns don’t have the same sorts of rights.
He also added that it's very easy to get this kind of information already from existing tools — particularly when it comes to political donations, where there is a legal obligation to make the information available.
“Not only do they have to collect it, they have to make it public,” he said. “Right now, I could search all my neighbors and see who gave money to whom.”