Greetings from Portsmouth, New Hampshire!
For better or worse, election season is here. Even if you don’t follow the news but watch five minutes of television, it’s impossible to avoid the barrage of local and state campaign commercials. I mean, in the last week alone — while I watched the Red Sox win their fourth World Series in the last 14 years — every commercial break featured the latest campaign smears. You know, it goes a little something like, “Candidate A supports man-eating clowns. A vote for him is a vote for the zombie apocalypse. Candidate B will stand up and fight those man-eating clowns. A vote for Candidate B is a vote against the zombie apocalypse. ‘I’m Candidate B, and I approve this message.’”
Quite frankly, it’s exhausting.
It’s even more exhausting when entities use (or pretend they’re using) big data to pressure people into voting. My wife and I received one such mailer this week. It ominously includes a table going back to 2010, our address, and a check or an “x” next to whether we voted that year or not. In this case, the data is inaccurate (for obvious reasons that I’ll avoid going into here), but it does give rise to how much easier it is these days to dig up people’s public information and shame them.
BuzzFeed profiled the Vote With Me app this week. Though the app’s maker wants more people to vote — a noble cause, no doubt — there is a creepiness factor (yes, I said that word). The app accesses the user’s contact list and matches names with state voter rolls. That way, the user can see which friends are registered and which ones voted in the last election. So, in theory, I could look up whether my friend is registered in the state and tell him to please vote for Candidate B (“Hey, Kevin, don’t vote for the zombie apocalypse!”). BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos sums up what many a privacy pro must consider when balancing privacy interests with innovation: “Upon deeper reflection, I found this creepy and believe it’s a strange invasion of my and my friends’ privacy. Just because the voter records of our friends (or really, anyone on our phones, which is a lot of random people!) are a matter of public record doesn’t mean they expect other people to look for them.”
And speaking of random people, P.S.R. attendees now know just how hard it is to make sure that the John Smith in your phone is the one in Maine and not the one in Montana.
In the old days, finding someone’s public voting record was a bit tougher than it is in the big data age. The nonprofit that made the Vote With Me app “gets its info by paying for a licensed set of records from a commercial entity that provides this as a service to campaigns and other groups.” Use of this kind of data isn’t really anything new — campaigns have long used similar data — and that’s why the app maker wants it to be more transparent. It’s now easy for anyone to access this data. Heck, with good intentions, even Spotify is using location and age data to urge people to go to the polls (hey, why not listen to the new Carly Rae Jepsen while waiting in line to vote? I can get down with that).
But hyperbole aside, this is an important and contentious midterm fraught with the full knowledge that entities are trying to upend the confidence we have in our election process. More knowledge about each of us is out there, and sources are trying to use it to swing elections, as well as manipulate and shame people. Oregon’s election director, for example, has said the state has seen a “huge increase” in phishing attempts aimed at government election officials. To top it all off, social media has made it easier for fringe hate groups to unite and amplify their message (the real-life man-eating clowns).
Obviously, so much of this goes beyond our day-to-day jobs in privacy, but privacy is a big part of what makes a healthy democracy function. Get out there and vote — and keep doing that important privacy work.
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