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Obama, Romney probably know what you read, where you shop, and what you buy. Is that a problem?

by Bryan Dooley, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Thumbnail-Bryan-Dooley.jpgMost voters who use the internet frequently are probably aware of "tracking cookies," used to monitor online activity and target ads and other materials specifically to individual users. Many may not be aware, however, of the increasing sophistication of such measures and the increasing extent of their use, in combination with other "data-mining" techniques, in the political arena. In "It's the Autonomy, Stupid: Political Data-Mining and Voter Privacy in the Information Age," published in the Spring 2012 volume of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science, & Technology, Chris Evans discusses the practice and its implications for personal privacy and voter autonomy.

Both parties rely extensively on data-mining to identify potentially sympathetic voters and target them, often with messages tailored carefully to the political leanings suggested by detailed individual profiles. Technological developments and the widespread commercial collection of consumer data, of which politicians readily avail themselves, allow political operatives to develop (and retain for future campaigns, and share) personal voter profiles with a broad swath of information about online and market activity.

As Evans discusses, this allows campaigns to allocate their resources more efficiently, and likely increases voter turnout by actively engaging those receptive to a certain message. It also has the potential to chill online discourse and violate the anonymity of the voting booth, a central underpinning of modern American democracy. Evans ultimately argues that existing law fails to adequately address the privacy issues stemming from political data-mining. He suggests additional protections are necessary: First, campaigns should be required to disclose information contained in voter profiles upon request. Second, voters should be given an option to be excluded from such profiling altogether.