In part because the campaigns’ practices are not fully transparent, it’s unclear just how much there is to worry about from a privacy perspective. Journalists who have led the way in covering this story say it is important to keep in mind the mostly self-imposed — if not legally required — limits on how the campaigns use data to send targeted messages. “There’s a lot of talk about how they’re directing specific messages to you [as an individual], but typically they’re not doing that,” Kaye said in an interview. “They put people in groups.” And Slate’s Sasha Issenberg devoted an April column to the tough restrictions the campaigns, wary of “the creepiness factor,” impose on their online advertising efforts. (In response to privacy complaints, the data director for Obama for America penned a Dec. 6 op-ed in The New York Times that ran under the headline “I am not Big Brother”; critics were not all persuaded.)
What is clear, though, is that the current standards for disclosure and transparency around the use of political data and digital campaigning—even on such basic questions as how money is being allocated—make reporting more challenging.
For example, while the Federal Communications Commission has long required TV stations to maintain public files of political ad buys—and those records are now online—there is no such equivalent for online ad buys. Campaigns “don’t have to report anything about what localities they’re buying in for online media,” said Kaye. “That’s a huge gap in information.”
“Campaigns only show their X dollars with a consulting firm to buy media—that’s all I know,” she said. “What I’d love, ideally, would be if the FEC would require standards in how things are reported.” That way, it would be clearer if spending went to buy advertisements or towards other media-related purchases, such as outside consulting. “I’d love to know who all the providers are—all the companies at work here,” she said.
As the news site ProPublica tried to tackle similar challenges, it reverse-engineered a solution. Reporter Lois Beckett explained how the site’s Message Machine, a project on online ad-targeting, and a piece about a Crossroads GPS online ad relied upon crowdsourcing, leaning on readers to report what they were seeing.
“If the campaigns won’t tell you what they’re doing, then work with your readers or people out there to try to get examples,” she said. “Then go back to some of the organizations and ask them, ‘Here’s an ad and here’s who got it in X way.’”
That approach had some success, Beckett said, but “it was limited”—because the campaigns get to decide how much they disclose, and “part of their strategy is no one has the right to know except for them.’” Take a look at Beckett’s regularly updated primer on the Obama campaign’s data practices, and the limits of disclosure are apparent. The answer to the first two questions, on the campaign’s data collection practices and what will happen to the data it harvested, begin: “It’s still not clear.”
Beckett doesn’t expect a new regulatory regime to fill in the blanks about specific campaign practices anytime soon. “When you ask political data and targeting specialists about the future of data, people who are insiders in this kind of political technology assume that no matter what the regulations are for consumer data tracking, politicians passing these laws will exempt political campaigns,” she said.
If campaigns are going to remain self-regulated, one way for reporters to get up to speed will be to educate themselves about how self-regulation now operates in the commercial sphere. On the privacy issue, for example, Beckett pointed to research by Carnegie Mellon professor Lorrie Cranor, who found that the standards industry groups created to regulate online advertisements may not meet Internet users’ common-sense expectations.