Obama campaign app concerns some privacy advocates

August 7, 2012

Forget the clipboard. Forget the field office. All the modern campaign volunteer needs is a smartphone and a smile.

President Obama’s reelection team has taken canvassing to the next technological level, introducing a free iPhone app that maps the location of nearby Democrats, identifying them by first name, last initial and home address.

It also offers a script for volunteers to follow with potential voters and tells how to elicit information about whether they are likely to vote for Obama and whether they would be willing to volunteer for the effort.

The free app, introduced last week, has drawn the ire of some privacy advocates, who note that anyone — not just legitimate campaign volunteers — can download it. The information is publicly available elsewhere, privacy advocate Shaun Dakin said, but the easy access of the app is still a little creepy.

“It doesn’t make it right just because it’s legal,” Dakin said. “Anybody can get this. There’s no way to prevent anyone from downloading this.”

Others defended the Obama team’s right to publish the data. With more information than ever at the fingertips of political campaigns, experts said such initiatives will no doubt proliferate.

“Party affiliation is public information, available through the state voter registration records. I don’t see the problem there,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “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 the new app, the Obama campaign said the information has long been available online to the general public, as well as to campaign field workers. The app, the team said in a statement, 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 [Obama for America] app,” the statement said. “Any voter who requests not to be contacted again is immediately removed from any lists provided to volunteers.”

Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, said Romney operatives will “roll out mobile features over the course of the campaign.” She declined to say whether the GOP is considering a similar canvassing application.

Justin Brookman, a privacy expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said he understands discomfort associated with the Obama app. “Historically,” he said, “there have been rules for people to participate anonymously in elections.”

But it’s difficult to argue that there should be limits on repurposing public information, Brookman said. For example, pharmaceutical companies have a right to access some doctors’ records to target their advertising. It would be hard, he said to deny campaigns the same sort of rights.

Plus, in the world of politics, there is often a legal requirement for transparency, Brookman said. In addition to keeping track of a voter’s party affiliation and participation in primary and general elections, government authorities typically must reveal the beneficiaries of their political donations.

“Not only do they have to collect it, they have to make it public,” Brookman said. “Right now, I could search all my neighbors and see who gave money to whom.”

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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