Here in California, it’s primary election time again, which typically means an avalanche of robocalls, petitioners, and unsolicited political texts. It got me thinking about the privacy trade-offs of participating in the democratic process, especially in a digital environment.
This piece from EFF is a few years old, but I think it provides a lot of very disturbing insight into how political campaigns collect, exploit, and trade in the personal data of the public, and I think it’s easily extrapolated to other areas of one’s digital life:
Reading something like the above makes me appreciate browser privacy extensions like NoScript and VPNs all the more; it’s unfortunate that most people don’t protect their privacy better on the internet and in the apps and phone settings they choose.
BTW, this topic is about data privacy, not any particular political views. Let’s avoid the usual #MyLittlePoliticalRantDuJour.
I just watched “2000 Mules”, by Dinesh D’Souza. The movie basically proves how the 2020 US Presidential election was stolen. The evidence includes that there were over two-thousand paid ballot harvesters, each tracked by cell phone geo-tracking. Each mule traveled on a daily basis for several weeks every day, from the headquarters of a liberal charity, to several dozen ballot drop-boxes. Then there is surveillance cameras at the ballot drop boxes that filmed the mules in each case, stuffing large stacks of ballots in to the boxes. The geotracking and photographic evidence data was measured in peta-bytes. The travel routes from box to box to box leaves no doubt what happened. On December 22nd, someone got caught through their finger print on a ballot. Starting December 23rd, they all started wearing blue gloves on the video surveillance. But the geo-tracking made this surveillance of the bad guys possible. I guess cell phone tracking isn’t all bad.
Yes, one piece missing is: They mention how the electoral roll data that is made available can be subject to a data breach - but they don’t mention how the donation data that is required by US law can be subject to a data breach. Of course that breach was still in the future when the EFF article was published and you can’t blame them for failing to mention future events.
I think that example also illustrates one of the challenges. I think most people would agree that disclosure of political donations is a good thing on balance i.e. the cost to privacy in requiring disclosure is outweighed by the cost to the democratic process in allowing massive and potentially even foreign donations to be anonymous.
However in this forum perhaps many people would disagree with that proposition. ???
What came to my mind while reading the EFF article is … “fox guarding the henhouse”. While many changes could be made to allow a person to participate fully in the democratic process but not, as a consequence, sacrifice the person’s privacy, the legislators who could do something about that have a clear conflict of interest. (As the EFF says, there is no need to single out any particular campaign. They all collectively have a conflict of interest.)
Two other comments:
Be wary of telephone pollsters, particularly if the firm is not well recognized.
Whether the firm is well recognised or not doesn’t really matter since you will have difficulty authenticating the caller. But you should insist on doing so before proceeding with the poll because otherwise it might be worse than the options that EFF mentions and in fact just be a scam e.g. for identity theft purposes.
Mrs Wade recently took a call from a pollster where she insisted on calling the company that the pollster claimed to be from using another phone in order to verify the calling line ID as legitimately being used by that company. (I would have just told them to bugger off. .)
Think twice before opening the door for a political canvasser bearing a tablet
… or bearing any other device that might be sniffing your home for MAC addresses. (You might reasonably be using real MAC addresses in your home, rather than the randomised ones that you should be using when out in public, if not just using the kill switch when out in public.)
The movie and the technology behind the technology on display in the movie are like opensource code, open for auditing by anyone. None of the experts on the other side have questioned the technology nor the actual data itself. The salient point here is not necessarily political. The technology is real and some 2000+ rats were actually caught in the trap, scurrying around from drop box to drop box to drop box (dozens to hundreds of drop box stops by the same 2000+ people) as parts of peta-bytes of publicly available geo-tracking data. How much opensource code have you personally audited lately? You don’t have to audit it yourself. It’s in the public domain.
Acceptance is not a requirement. Some people do not value critical thinking and that seems to work for them. If we want to pretend that Google and Apple are not really spying on us in a way that we care about, then we don’t really value privacy and there are eventual costs to not valuing your privacy. If we don’t value the potential affects (for better or worse) of geo-tracking, then we can say that it’s all like “star wars”, without really putting any effort in to considering otherwise and to just say “it’s just a movie” with no critical thought processes that might challenge our world view.
Those who really care will do the validation work or will follow those who do the validation work in cases where their world-view is affected. For those who don’t care enough, ignorance is bliss… at least for now. But it is ignorant to outright dismiss something like this up-front, without even examining the specific claims and scientific methods used, (which specific claims and methods span the course of a movie) and conclusions and a summary of the evidence in detail, because we don’t want to believe it.
The data allowed scientists to isolate small segments from millions of hours of surveilance video wherein thousands of individuals wearing surgical gloves (in most cases) are viewed stuffing large numbers of ballots in to multiple different drop boxes at 3:00 AM (or other late hours) at multiple different locations. Without the geo-tracking, it would not have been humanly possible to review all or even a significant amount, of the security camera data with thousands of security cameras rolling 24/7 over a period of months in many cases. It’s like photo radar. Not one speeding car passes the camera without being caught.
This article details some of the ways your data is acquired* and then wantonly trafficked among campaigns and beyond:
*(Facebook, people’s uploaded contact lists, state voter files, commercial data brokers, banks, magazine subscriptions, TV companies, mobile apps, website tracking, location data, etc.)
It also names a few companies that collect and sell your data en masse to those campaigns. Some states have laws that require those companies to provide you with copies of everything they have on you, and may even have a “Do not sell my information” link on their website.
It would be sweet if they received a flood of such requests all at once right about election time.
I thought it would be funny to try to buy some of this data to show people the reality of what is being done so I went looking for ways to do that but it ended up depressing me more than I already was. First, my state will sell you voter lists. It’s not obvious to me exactly what data is included. They list address, name, party affiliation, date the ballot was returned (my state has been all voting by mail recently) and some other things but below that it also mentions that “private” data is only given to registered candidates and their campaigns. I would assume that name and address are “private” but it almost seems like there is other data besides what is listed that is categorized as “private”.
I then looked at some data brokers. I found one that provided voter data including things like donations and affiliations with certain groups. The cost to get that data for my whole state was around $25,000. So well out of reach for me but a pittance for a company or large political campaign. And depending on how many buyers they get, the broker is likely making a huge profit. One upside is that there was a big notice at the bottom of the broker website that said that sending mail to my state was prohibitively expensive due to some political bureaucratic policies which “dramatically raise fundraising and administrative costs by forcing donors to pay for wasteful, bureaucratic and needless regulations which steal money from worthy causes”. I would be proud of my state except that I very much doubt that anyone was intentionally trying to protect residents from anything. More likely it was an accident.
I can’t comment on the US but in Oz the following additional data may be available (subject to many unsatisfactory and ineffective restrictions )
date of birth
The core data is
In almost all cases the core data also includes
Where the core data includes residential address, you can apply to have that kept secret if publishing the address would put the personal safety of you or your family members at risk. I don’t know how often that provision is used or how often it is successful - which is perhaps not surprising because if you are the kind of person who would use this provision, successfully or unsuccessfully, by definition you probably wouldn’t advertise that fact.
As with most government ‘databases’, the data can legally be used for purposes other than which it was collected.
I’d also be interested in statistics about how many people manage to hide their addresses. But like you say, it’s probably unlikely that people who do succeed would share. I wonder if there is a similar provision in my state. I’ll have to look around.
There are ways of hiding your information. When I moved in to my current home, I never filled-in the little card that tells the post office to send my mail to my home. I have a private UPS store mail box somewhere else. I make sure that the mail I want to get goes there. Fifty pounds of the junk that people send to me at my home address every month all gets “return to sender” or “undeliverable”. When I re-financed the house, I made sure to put in to the closing escrow instructions, to send my mortgage-related information to my private mailing address and not to the property address, while not putting my private mailing address on to the public records. That worked. I have a “junk e-mail address”, and another email address that I give to only close friends and family.
Inevitably, no matter what I say to the cable company, the power company, some family and friends, and others who absolutely have to know where I actually live, they ended up calling me later to ask if I’ve moved, because their mail to me was returned to them. I always give them this stern lecture when they call about that, where I remind them that I told them not to send anything to the house address, because I won’t get ever what they send to me if they do. I am really fanatical about warning people about that when I must disclose to anyone, where I actually live. Some people don’t listen and just assume that the house address is good too. But eventually, you get those people trained to only use the mailing address if they want you to get what they send. Now, I check my mail once every six weeks or so, and all I get there are four or five things that I really wanted to get, and usually nothing else. The only exception is the unwanted political ads. If I want to vote, I have to provide a valid mailing address for the state to mail my ballot to. And they give it to all of the campaigns. There is no choice about that. Surprisingly though, other than the political crap in voting season, I got rid of most advertising and otherwise unwanted junk from showing up in my mail.
Don’t you also have to a provide a valid residential address for you to be eligible to vote at all?
(Technically speaking there are provisions that still allow homeless people to vote in Australia but in the normal case, your residential address would determine what division of the entire country you are eligible to vote in e.g. which state of the US in the case of the US?)
Yes, you have to provide your actual residence address also if you want to vote. I get a great deal of satisfaction knowing that those campaign vultures are probably sending me a hundred pounds or more of their junk mail in the voting season that routinely gets returned to them as un-deliverable. But I receive my ballot every time at my mailing address.
Legally, I do give the state my real residence address where I also do own the home and where I actually live. But they respect my wish to get my mail somewhere else. The point is that if you don’t get your mail at the same address that is on the public records as a home owner, then you get to decide who can send mail to you and exclude everyone else in most cases. Your mail box is for your benefit, not to benefit a large pack of vultures who want to sell something to you because your home address is on the public records.
When you move house, you can choose “temporary” address change (expires in 6 months, renewable for an additional 6 months, I believe). Then the USPS won’t add your new address to the National Change of Address Registry, which the USPS sells to any entity that will pay.
You can also buy property within a trust, and avoid using your name and residential address, but there’s some cost and complexity involved. Best to do it at time of purchase, rather than after the fact, to avoid further expense (recording fees, title transfer, etc.).