Welcome to You're Doing It Wrong, a weekly column taking the Powers That Be (PTB), especially the media and talking heads, to task for poor information and poor framing.
This week, I’m not going after the media and talking heads; instead, I’m going after the PTB for something that I don’t think is well thought through and could result in some rather negative unintended consequences.
As technology has developed, it has made many things in life a whole lot easier, which is awesome. But sometimes that technology, even if it makes things easier, should not be widely available to just anyone.
Last week, the Obama campaign released a new app for the iphone that allows anyone to download a google map with addresses of voters, and includes name, address, age, gender, and party affiliation. They did this to make it easier for anyone to volunteer to go door to door to do GOTV canvassing. I can understand the want to expand this accessibility to a wider pool of grassroots volunteers, but is it really a good idea?
Yes, in this day and age, information on us is collected all day long via our phones, computers, ipads, and discount cards. There are cookies on our web browsers and logs of our purchases, and records of what websites we visit and what we click on. There seems to be no end to the data mining lengths marketers can use to track us, many times unknowable to us who has access to this information. One decent thing about this data mining is that most of these pieces of data are either logged without much personal information or only with the personal information that we choose to give when we sign up for a website or discount card. Another decent thing about it is that the information is not widely and easily available to the public. Neither of these things apply to the new canvassing app now available.
When I sign up for a website, most of them simply require a user name and working email address to register. Then, if I choose to, I can go to my profile page and add information, they key phrase here being “if I choose to”. When I sign up for a discount card, the most they demand is a name and sometimes a phone number in order for the card to work. When I go to a website, my pageview is logged under my IP address or under my user account. But again, even this limited information is not widely available to the public.
However, when I register to vote, I don’t have a lot of privacy options. Most states require your name, physical address, mailing address, date of birth, driver’s license or ID card number, and party affiliation, and many states also require the last 4 digits Social Security number, any felony convictions, and phone number. You don’t have the option in most cases to leave any of this information blank. Now I can understand needing this information for something as important as registering to vote, but having some of it released to the public at large bothers me greatly.
While I know that technically, voter registration information is considered public info, it used to be that access to canvassing information had some gatekeeping involved. In order to obtain that information, you had to be a volunteer with a campaign office, which then meant you had to go and get it from the local campaign office, and they didn’t give it to just anyone. This not only meant you had to sign up with the office, but that you had to actually do the canvassing and the lists had to be returned to the office. A regular person could not just go into a campaign office or the county registrar of voters and simply get this information. I know people did find ways around it, but at least it wasn’t terribly easy. Even with today’s online phone-banking set ups, most of them only give the volunteer the name, phone number, age, gender, and party affiliation of the folks they will be phone- canvassing.
I have a huge problem with having physical addresses available to anyone who wants it. I purposely don’t include my home address on anything where it’s not absolutely required. In my life, I’ve been stalked and harassed before and the last thing I want is someone who may have an issue with me being able to readily find out exactly where I live. In the job I have, people tend to get really mad at me, and the last thing I need is my home address readily available to them. In these days, what with the partisan venom stoked regularly by Faux Noise and its various affiliated talking heads, do we really want to have it so anyone can find out where all the Democrats live in their area? I live in a red state where there’s a very palpable hatred for Democrats and liberals by some of the most ardent right wingers; do we really need to have it be easy for them to get this info? All you have to do is sign up online as an OFA volunteer and that gets you my personal information if you want it? This is stalking made easy, courtesy of the Obama campaign or any other campaign that decides to use something like it. I know the campaign says there are safeguards, but those safeguards only go into effect after the misuse occurs. That certainly doesn't make me very confident.
It was a bad idea in 2008 and it’s a bad idea now. I know it makes things easier for the campaign to GOTV, but at what possible cost? The Obama campaign just gave a little target map to any angry rightie who wants to harass me and you, simply because of our party affiliation. I call bullshit on that. And I can’t see any real way of safeguarding that info in that you can just sign up online to get it, as opposed to actually having to go out of your way and go through actual human beings at the local campaign office to get it.
Releasing an app for finding out people’s home addresses and party affiliation to anyone in order to get out the vote for you is Doing It Wrong! Most people value their privacy, and for some of us that privacy is necessary. So to the Obama campaign, if you want my vote, if you want people to turn out for you, making their personal information available electronically to anyone one who wants it is a bad idea! Instead of opening all of us registered Democrats to possible harassment by anyone in the general public simply because you technologically can, perhaps think about doing it the way it’s always been done. It hasn’t stopped anyone in the past from getting elected and it won’t stop anyone in the future. The best GOTV has always been enthusiasm over a good record; short of that, allowing for anyone to invade people’s privacy is probably not the most effective way to earn a vote.