Utne Blogs > Science and Technology

Barack Obama’s Online Databases Know When You Are Sleeping

 by Bennett Gordon

Tags: Science, Technology, Politics, Barack Obama, online information, data gathering, privacy, volunteering,

Obama Web 2.0Millions of people came together online during the 2008 election, working to get Barack Obama elected president. They donated money, made phone calls from the internet database, organized meetings, and blogged on the candidate’s website. And now, Barack Obama knows about all of them.

Many gave up their information willingly, volunteering their emails to sign up for MyBarackObama.com’s cutting-edge web 2.0 functionality or yielding their cell phone numbers to receive text messages with the latest campaign updates. The campaign’s army of volunteers also took to the phones and to the streets, asking people for information on their political leanings and issues important to them. According to Technology Review, the Democratic National Committee acquired some 223 million pieces of data on potential voters in the final two months before the election.

That information isn’t going away when Obama moves into the White House. People used to joke that the Republican Party was so successful at “microtargeting,” and knowing about potential voters, that they knew what kind pizza that each voters liked. Now, “GOP's data-gathering efforts look like the work of amateurs,”

Just one problem,” Karl Rove wrote last month in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. “It's illegal. There are statutory prohibitions on the White House from using tax dollars to directly lobby Congress by unleashing emails, calls and visits.”

It turns out that the Obama campaign's use of the data is almost completely unregulated,” Grimmelmann writes. MyBarackObama.com’s watery privacy policy states that the campaign can “make personal information available to organizations with similar political viewpoints and objectives, in furtherance of our own political objectives,” leaving the door open for information sharing between the campaign and the NSA, the FBI, or even marketing companies.  

The likelihood of the Obama administration selling its databases for money, or even sharing it with the NSA, seems slim. “The Obama campaign has the means and the opportunity to violate your privacy,” Grimmelmann writes, “but it doesn't have much of a motive.” The FBI and the NSA already have the necessary means to get that kind of information, and the Obama team wouldn’t want their databases compromised by outside influences.

added a “Join the Discussion” feature to their Change.gov website, allowing people to weigh in on issues important to them. According to Reagan, there’s been talk of creating automatically generated voter profiles, with information on people’s personal voting districts and allowing them to easily connect to their elected representatives.

Tech experts are hoping that “Mr. Obama can convince the public to channel the energy wasted on inconsequential Internet tendencies into getting involved in government,” Regan writes. They could leverage their existing information to facilitate a greater connection between the government and other citizens, as long as other issues, including health care, the economy, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t get in the way first.

Image by Quinn Dombrowski, licensed under Creative Commons.