Slaby, the campaign official, said the database in the near term could be used to organize support for the president’s legislative agenda but eventually might go to the Democratic National Committee or Obama’s presidential library committee once it is established. Or, he said, it could go to a group created to nurture and deploy the database most effectively. No existing group has the technical resources to manage the data, he said.
Slaby said of Obama, “A lot of this will rest on him and what he wants his legacy and the legacy of this organization to mean.”
The database powered nearly everything about Obama’s campaign, including fundraising, identifying likely supporters and urging them to vote. This resulted in an operational edge that helped a candidate with a slim margin in the overall national vote to trounce Romney in the state-by-state electoral college contests.
Obama was able to collect and use personal data largely free of the restrictions that govern similar efforts by private companies. Neither the Federal Trade Commission, which has investigated the handling of personal data by Google, Facebook and other companies, nor the Federal Election Commission has jurisdiction over how campaigns use such information, officials at those agencies say.
Privacy advocates say the opportunity for abuse — by Obama, Romney or any other politician’s campaign — is serious, as is the danger of hackers stealing the data. Voters who willingly gave campaigns such information may not have understood that it would be passed on to the party or other candidates, even though disclosures on Web sites and Facebook apps warn of that possibility.
Chris Soghoian, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former FTC technologist, said voters should worry that the interests of politicians and commercial data brokers have aligned, making legal restrictions of data collection less likely.
“They’re going to be loath to regulate those companies if they are relying on them to target voters,” he said.
Slaby said the campaign took great care with the data it collected and will ensure that whoever takes it over will protect it. Such efforts, though, take unusual resources, he said. Building the campaign’s technological systems took nearly two years and, at their peak, involved about 120 paid employees working with data provided by hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Republicans once held the edge in using technology to identify and motivate voters. After Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) lost to President George W. Bush in 2004, Democrats invested in building better voter lists and developing a new generation of political operatives skilled in the science of persuasion and motivation.