Recent revelations about how the ride-on-demand company Uber handles the records of its users was a healthy reminder of just how much data about each one of us is floating around out in the world.
Including, that is, inside the computers of political professionals. Campaigns and political groups today have deep troves of data on us. And tech-savvy political practitioners say that while they, too, worry about data abuse, they're not about to give up figuring out clever ways to use that information. Why?
Because the data shows that we actually really, really like it when they do.
"We take great measures to protect the information we collect," Matt Compton, the digital director at the Democratic National Committee, said recently, of the data the DNC has on where we live, which candidates we've supported, what issues we care about.
But, Compton was quick to add, "in a lot of cases people like to be reminded about the information that they've shared with us."
How so? Take that building block of modern politics, the fundraising e-mail. Political e-mail pros report that members of their mailing lists are more likely to open up customized messages, like ones that include their first names. That's not especially shocking: A 2013 marketing study from the firm Experian found that e-mails with personalized subject lines have a 26 percent higher click-through rate.
Perhaps more startling, though, is that voters like being told within those e-mails exactly how much they've given in the past and when -- so much so, said Meg Vazquez, a graphic designer with the Democrats, that designers will highlight those details with fonts that pop or use striking colors.
"We want them to think about it," Vazquez said at a recent political organizing conference. "Like, 'Gee, I haven't donated in two months, and I feel bad about it.'"
Beyond that, the Democrats have found, voters are receptive to being given "microgoals" for fundraising as part of their community. That's why you might receive an e-mail that reads, "If you can be one of the 333 people we need from Brooklyn to support Democrats before tonight's fundraising deadline, please chip in $3 or more today."
But that's not all. In 2014, Democratic digital experts discovered something even more eye-catching. They took those same pitches that asked people to give based on where they live and added one single bit of personal information: a map showing, within a radius of several miles, the recipient's home address. In effect, that addition proved that the e-mail was aware of where the would-be donor lived.
Given the outrage over an Uber manager accessing and sharing a reporter's own ride record with her, you might think those maps might lower donors' enthusiasms for giving money. But they didn't. They increased how much people gave.
And not by just a little. By 17 percent.
The seeming gap between what we might say about our privacy and how we actually respond to our data being used isn't surprising, says Daniel Kreiss, assistant professor of political communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"Answering a survey and reacting to the uses of data we encounter in our day-to-day lives are very different things," says Kreiss. "Privacy is contextual and situational. And what seems to matter in the political space is whether it's a group I've opted into, one that I'm ideologically aligned with. If I want that group to be as powerful as possible, my concerns about privacy are probably going to be a lot less."
That's backed up by research. A 2007 study in the journal Marketing Letters found that consumers are highly sensitive to whether we think our data is being used in ways relevant to the purpose at hand. Special offers that use our personal details are inoffensive; a customized e-mail offering the same services everyone else gets, though, can easily rub us the wrong way.
All that provides some clues as to why, when people turned on Uber recently, they turned quickly enough to cause whiplash. Uber was in the clear when its users were invested in its success and believed that their information was being used to make Uber better, like a carpooling feature that shares the first names of people nearby who might want to share a discounted ride with you.
But as public opinion shifted against Uber, some users became more ambivalent about the company's prospects, and the casual use of their data -- such as a since-removed blog post tracking late-night hookups -- that customers might have tolerated before now looked sinister.
Still, even when an organization's supporters are loyal and true, striking the right balance on data privacy can be tough. In 2012, the Obama presidential campaign tried out a mobile app that let backers locate nearby potential voters, complete with first name, last initial and home address. The Find-Nearby app had a gee-whiz factor, said John Lee, the chief technology officer from NGP VAN, a technology and data firm that worked with the Obama campaign to create the application. But few people actually used it.
"No one was like, 'I'm bored in a Starbucks and I'm going to go find five people to canvass.'" Lee added with a laugh, "We might not have gotten the creepiness factor right on that one."
Protecting data, political organizers say, is something they're actively thinking about.
Nate Thames, executive director of technical services at the progressive online fundraising service ActBlue, protects credit card records and other data through both encryption and internal checks. The group's employees are broadly able to pull up donation records. But those who access records are regularly audited to make sure that employees aren't, say, retrieving a ex's donation history just for fun.
Also, said Thames, ActBlue has a "no jerks" hiring policy that, he says, helps define the universe of acceptable use of data within the organization.
Balancing the ability to do targeted outreach with a desire to treat that data with the respect it deserves is something that "a lot of us" in data-driven politics "are still figuring out," said Jess Livoti-Morales is a senior digital strategist at the labor umbrella group AFL-CIO. The digital team at the union group has a sign up in its office as a reminder, she said.
"It says, "Try not to be too creepy.'"