Obama campaign’s creepy new iPhone app shows the name, age and gender of Democrats around you
By Madison Ruppert
Editor of End the Lie
The second campaign of Barack Obama has adopted tactics similar to those used in the 2008 campaign, namely, making the personal information of registered voters available to Obama canvassers in an effort to bombard as many people with pro-Obama messages as possible with as little effort as possible.
It’s quite sad to say that by the Obama administration’s standards this is hardly worth mentioning. When the standard is set by fighting to maintain unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping powers, claiming private reviews of classified evidence count as due process and legitimizing the assassination of Americans, an app like this seems almost acceptable.
The free iOS application, called “Obama for America,” was released by the Democratic National Committee on July 31, 2012. It boasts some features which are to be expected such as featured news, events, and other information pertinent to the Obama campaign.
It gets creepy when one explores the canvassing feature which automatically recognizes your location and marks registered Democratic households nearby with a blue flag icon.
These flags don’t just mark the home; they also include some quite personal information like the first name of the individual and the first letter of their last name, their age and gender.
In the Obama campaign’s defense, all of the information they are using is actually public and has been handed over to campaign volunteers for quite a while.
However, as Lois Beckett of Pro Publica rightly points out, the big difference is that now “you no longer have to schedule a visit to a field office and wait for a staffer to hand you a clipboard and a printed-out list of addresses.”
This means that you’re just one click away from pounding on the doors of neighbors in order to remind them to vote for their wonderful candidate who has turned his promise of the most transparent administration in history into a running joke.
The New York Times lovingly called the Obama campaign’s app “the science-fiction dream of political operatives,” while others aren’t quite as excited about how easy it is to see the political leaning of those around you almost instantly.
“I do think it’s something useful for them, but it’s also creepy,” said 58-year-old Lori Carena of Brooklyn when shown the app. “My neighbors across the street can know that I’m a Democrat. I’m not sure I like that.”
The opinions of the people actually listed by the app don’t seem to matter much to the Obama campaign, which defended the feature by saying that the information has “traditionally been available.”
When confronted about the potential privacy violations of their application, an Obama campaign spokesperson stated that “anyone familiar with the political process in America knows this information about registered voters is available and easily accessible to the public.”
The information has “traditionally been available to anyone who walks into a campaign field office,” said the unnamed spokesperson.
The application only shows a small number of addresses at a time and it is unclear if it shows all registered Democrats in the area or if it only shows individuals who have been targeted for canvassing by the Obama administration for one reason or another.
They limit the amount of results that come up at once in an attempt to minimize abuse, according to the spokesperson.
The spokesperson also stated that there are some systems built in to the application which are designed to detect individuals abusing the application in some way, “such as people submitting way too many voter contacts in a short period of time.”
“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,” the spokesperson claimed.
“Any voter who requests not to be contacted again is immediately removed from any provided to volunteers,” they added.
This tactic is much like the so-called Neighbor to Neighbor program leveraged by the Obama campaign in 2008 which allowed campaign volunteers to print lists of names and addresses from their home computer.
Currently both Romney and Obama are also using online calling tools on their campaign websites which give the names and phone numbers of people to contact.
The predecessor to this application was one used by the Democratic group Organizing for America during the 2010 midterm elections. Using that app, volunteers were able to use their phones to map out the locations of nearby voters in order to contact them. It then allowed the volunteers to send the responses from the voters they spoke with to the Obama campaign.
A voter privacy advocate and critic of the 2008 Neighbor to Neighbor program, Shaun Dakin, went as far as to call it a “total privacy fail” on Twitter. Dakin, of Dakin & Associates Consulting, is also an outspoken critic of the practice of political “robocalling.”
Dakin also rightly pointed out the strange choice to include the age of nearby voters, although I think both the age and gender seem completely unnecessary.
However, Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law at Harvard and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society seemed to think the app was a positive move, even while noting that in the past this type of voter data was just “technically public” and usually used only be political campaigns and data mining companies.
“The purpose of this app may be Democrats visiting Democrats. I can see apps where you ask Republicans to visit Democrats and Democrats to visit Republicans,” said Zittrain.
“If we’re comfortable enough to have [this information] go into the maw of big data processors, both political and otherwise, it seems consistent for neighbors to talk to neighbors over it,” he said.
“Much of our feelings around privacy are driven by what you might call status-quo-ism,” said Zittrain, indicating his belief that some people might find it creepy just because it is new.
I do not believe that privacy concerns are driven by “status-quo-ism” as Zittrain put it but a genuine concern for the fact that we are losing just about every little shred of privacy we have on a scale previously unimaginable. If Zittrain wants to pretend that I’m living in the past by hoping that we can indeed maintain our right to privacy in America then so be it, but that will not stop me from speaking out in support of our besieged right to privacy.
Did I forget anything or miss any errors? Would you like to make me aware of a story or subject to cover? Or perhaps you want to bring your writing to a wider audience? Feel free to contact me at [email protected] with your concerns, tips, questions, original writings, insults or just about anything that may strike your fancy.