In the 2016 campaign, it appears that Sen. Ted Cruz is leading the way on sophisticated voter targeting. According to The Guardian, the Texas Republican's campaign has hired a firm called Cambridge Analytica to harvest information on tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission and then combine it with public records. The campaign’s smartphone app scrapes the phone for additional contacts, The Washington Post reported this week.
The goal of the information collection is to allow the Cruz campaign to build psychological profiles of potential supporters and then deliver the best message to try to get them involved in the campaign. So a person who received high scores on “neuroticism” might receive a pro-gun pitch with a picture of a burglar breaking into a home, The Post explained. Or a person who scored high on “openness” might get a message about family values. In particular, Cruz is using his data-crunching machine to try to lock down support from Christian conservatives.
David Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a former top FTC official, said that Cruz’s tactics might be particularly sophisticated but there’s nothing truly groundbreaking about them. “There have been tremendous efforts by both sides to acquire as much as information as possible and to mine the hell out of it,” Vladeck said. “I’m sure each party has thousands of data points on each of us.”
One of the reasons that campaigns are able to collect data so easily is that much of the information they’re after is already public. Campaign finance and election laws are focused on promoting transparency, not protecting privacy. So a person’s name, gender, date of birth, address, party affiliation, donation history, and voting history (when they voted but not for whom they voted) is often available in public records.
“Voter data may be the largest concentration of unregulated personal information in the U.S. today,” Ira Rubinstein, a professor at New York University School of Law, wrote in a 2014 law review article titled “Voter Privacy in the Age of Big Data.”
Information that campaigns can’t collect from public records or through their own websites, they can buy from “data brokers,” firms that compile massive databases of personal information. That information can come from a wide range of sources, including social-media sites, Web browsing, surveys, magazine subscriptions, or purchasing histories. Many data brokers sell their databases for marketing or fraud detection. But there are a new breed of data brokers focusing exclusively on political campaigns.