Data-driven election campaigns: What they are and how they affect your voting

It’s the run-up to the presidential elections in the United States. Unfortunately, if we don’t play our cards right, that means it’s time for our privacy to be run over. Political campaigns worldwide are data-driven. In a nutshell, that means that they’re getting in our faces and all over our phones, sending robocalls and texts. They’re sucking details about our political leanings from our social media posts. They’re tracking us like bloodhounds, sniffing out an array of personal data, from whom we text and call to where we shop and what we buy, both online and offline. A survey conducted by Opinion Matters on behalf of Avira shows that 59% of Americans have received unwanted, direct communication from political candidates.

They use all that data and far more personally identifiable information (PII) to generate models of who we are so that they can influence us—or, as the case may be, so that they can meddle in elections. Are we comfortable with transgendered use of bathrooms, for example? Do we believe in building a wall between the United States and Mexico? How we feel about these and other hot-button issues colors our publicly displayed social media selves and informs political parties of which voters they should concentrate their “get out the vote” efforts on. The flip side of the coin: using our data to carry out voter suppression via disinformation campaigns, including, for example, those that encourage Americans to “vote by text,” while voting by text is not possible in the U.S.

Bear in mind that political campaigns aren’t the only ones that profit off our data. The more cybercriminals know about us, the more convincing they can be when crafting spear phishing or other social engineering attacks.

Nevertheless, besides the everyday dangers of crooks targeting us with our PII, now is the time, with elections at hand, that political data wranglers are particularly active. As we head into the voting booth or mail in our absentee ballots, we should all know how our data is collected and used in data-driven elections, both by data brokers and the political campaigns that purchase that data. Here’s an overview of how it all happens:

How do political campaigns get your data?

Tactical Tech—an NGO that tracks technology’s impact on society—recently noted that political campaigners employ a host of “hidden, pervasive and persuasive” methods, many borrowed from the fields of marketing, statistics, and psychology, to advance their agendas, sway our views and influence our votes.

Quartz science reporter Olivia Goldhill has done a deep dive on one data company, HaystaqDNA, that claims to hold data on more than half the U.S. population, and uses it to analyze and predict voters’ detailed political opinions. What do people think about Black Lives Matter?  A ban on Muslims entering the U.S.? Those are just some of the views that can predict how somebody will vote, and, coupled with tools from advertising, has enabled the firm to market laser-like targeting” of messages to voters. The data comes from surveys, from publicly available records, and from social media, as in, from analyzing emotions in tweets and Facebook posts. The firm makes use of it all by matching real-world and online identities to come up with models of who we are and how we’ll vote. Here are some of the ways your data is collected:

Mobile phone apps location data 

Mobile apps are notorious for being able to track you like bloodhounds. Two years ago, a New York Times investigation found that even trusted apps like GasBuddy and The Weather Channel—among at least 73 other companies—were gathering purportedly anonymous” but pinpoint-precise location data from millions of smartphones across the US. They were sharing it or selling it to advertisers, retailers, or even hedge funds seeking valuable insights into consumer behavior.

Your Facebook profile and activities 

Facebook alone can collect scads of your personal data, including:  

  • Your geolocation 
  • When you’re logged on and how long your sessions last 
  • Whatever you’ve shared in your “About” section, including your religion, political views, sexual orientation, etc. 
  • Whom you search for online 
  • Whom you call and text, if you sync your Android contacts with Facebook
  • Where you spend your money, both online and offline 
  • Your movements 

How can you protect your digital privacy from data drainage? 

There are tools that can help you protect your digital privacy, though many of them have caveats that you should be aware of before implicitly trusting themFor a look at who’s using what privacy tools, according to the Opinion Matters survey commissioned by Avira, as well as what we can expect from those tools, check out our article on which tools can protect your voting privacy. Besides tools, check out these extra privacy steps you can take to stay under the radar on your smartphone.

Lisa has been writing, editing and setting editorial direction in technology publications since 1995, including 12 years as reporter/executive editor at eWEEK/PC WEEK; 9 years as a main content creator for Sophos's award-winning Naked Security cybersecurity blog; and contract work for SentinelOne, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, and IT Expert Voice, et al.