We all know about third-party political groups, exemplified by Super PACs and other independent organizations, that spend big money to influence election outcomes.

Now say hello to third-party information resellers, who data-mine campaign websites to target potential voters.

From the New York Times:

One of the hallmarks of this campaign is the use of increasingly sophisticated — but not always accurate — data-mining techniques to customize ads for voters based on the digital trails they leave as they visit Internet sites.

It is a practice pioneered by online retailers who work with third-party information resellers to create detailed portraits of consumers, all the better to show them relevant marketing pitches. Mr. Goddard, for example, may have received those Romney ads because of “retargeting” software designed to show people ads for certain sites or products they have previously viewed.

Now, in the election’s final weeks, both presidential campaigns have drastically increased their use of such third-party surveillance engines, according to Evidon, a company that helps businesses and consumers monitor and control third-party tracking software.

So what’s the problem? Just this:

The campaigns directly hire some companies, like ad agencies or data management firms, that marry information collected about voters on a campaign site with data about them from other sources. But these entities, in turn, may bring their own software partners to the sites to perform data-mining activities like retargeting voters or tracking the political links they share with their social networks.

Now some consumer advocates say the proliferation of these trackers raises the risk that information about millions of people’s political beliefs could spread to dozens of business-to-business companies whose names many voters have never even heard. There is growing concern that the campaigns or third-party trackers may later use that voter data for purposes the public never imagined, like excluding someone from a job offer based on his or her past political affiliations.

And there’s plenty more like that in the Times piece.

Read it and creep (out).



John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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