Smartphones may be the coolest new tool for Election 2012, but users should think twice before taking advantage of the technology, privacy advocates say.
A report from the Electronic Privacy Information Center released Monday said that campaigns and voters should be aware of the security and privacy issues that can accompany the next generation of political campaigning.
One thing voters should be careful of when interacting with political campaigns, the group said, is keeping a clear line of separation between their work and personal devices.
“It can make things more complicated,” said EPIC’s associate director, Lillie Coney, of using one’s work phone to participate in a campaign. The report cites an example of an employee who was fired for having a political bumper sticker on her car, and Coney said that some employers may be even less forgiving if company property is used to participate in campaigns. “There could be a chilling effect in saying ‘I know all the Democrats or Republicans working in my store.’ We have to think about the downstream consequences of that,” she said.
And while voters may feel comfortable sharing certain information with the campaign of their choice, they may not feel as comfortable seeing the information posted somewhere else, or in an easier-to-access format.
“The challenge for elections in a social-driven campaign environment is figuring out the right amount of information” to collect and share with others, Coney said. In many cases, it’s difficult to divine how campaign laws made to regulate political mail, radio and television apply to texts, apps or Podcasts.
The report also highlights smartphone security concerns such as malicious software or botnets that could target the mobile versions of legitimate campaign Web sites or apps. Criminals, the report said, could also create fake Web sites that look like legitimate campaign sites in order to trick those using their smartphones to submit personal information. Or they could use botnets to take over smartphone functions to send funds through auto-dialing or to overload campaign Web sites at crucial moments.
Coney said that the average consumer doesn’t see the smartphone as as being that vulnerable to attack yet, but elections provide the opportunity for criminals to easily collect personal information.
“That’s the sort of the unfortunate thing about technology,” she said. “It doesn’t stay still.”
Using smartphones as a part of campaign efforts has a lot of benefits as well, the report noted, such as increased voter engagement due to how convenient it is to give money or time to a campaign on the devices.
To keep potential problems in check, Coney said, campaigns should vet their apps with third-party software assessors and be clear about what information they collect and how it’s used. Voters should check the apps they download are the official campaign apps, and should stick to the primary app markets when looking for apps.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport, we need people to be engaged,” Coney said. “There are a lot of benefits to campaigns, and to voters. Our approach is not to say you can or can’t do that, but to point out the risks.”