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Are the Democrats Going to Sell Your Political Opinions? If They Were, Now They're Not

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Wednesday, February 6 2013

The head of a company that markets information about Democratic voters told ProPublica's Lois Beckett that the private sector might be a "growth area" for his business — and now he tells techPresident the data indicates he should roll back that comment.

Drew Brighton, CEO of TargetSmart Communications in Washington, D.C. told ProPublica that selling to the private sector was on the table.

But in a conversation with techPresident, he said the comment was blown out of proportion.

"It's not like the parties were sitting around a table saying: 'Let's go sell data to corporations,'" Brighton said. "That was never part of the deal."

"We've got all these progressive allies out there who are paying other companies for access to the data that we've already built, and we think we have the best product, let's have them use our system," he continued.

Nevertheless, the comment is a controversial one since privacy advocates in recent years have spoken out against private sector data companies for compiling marketing dossiers on individuals, selling those dossiers, using the information in ways that are often not clearly explained, not providing individuals with any opportunities to have a say in how it's used, or even letting users check if it's accurate.

"I would expect at some point for people to be upset," Brighton said in a phone interview. "I did get a few e-mails from people that know me, asking: 'Are you really doing this? It seems pretty risky,' and I said: 'No, we're not doing this yet, but we basically said in our effort to represent the co-op, we're looking at all the potential areas where they want to market their data.'"

Like any other political organization, state-level Democratic parties make use of publicly available voter files that contain individuals' voting records and histories. TargetSmart provides "cleaned up" versions of these files, meaning that the company has gone through the records and made sure that the information, such as phone numbers, is current and accurate. State parties then use software from the Democratic software company NGP VAN to manage that data as well as what party volunteers collect about voters' political opinions. That could range from anything from which political candidate they support to what ballot initiatives they support or oppose. All that information is owned by the state Democratic parties, which formed a national data file co-op in 2011.

TargetSmart is a private sector data broker that markets all that information -- usually to affiliated political entities and non-profits. Any other decisions about sales to private sector entities would ultimately rest with state party leaders, Brighton said.

But even the idea of selling information collected in one context for use in other contexts is controversial.

Governments around the world have long relied on the privacy principles agreed upon by policy experts at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and used those principles to develop their own versions of privacy law and recommendations. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has called those the Fair Information Practice Principles. Those principles recommend that anyone aggregating personal information about individuals should inform them of what it's being used for, and who else might have access to it. In addition, the White House last February published a "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights," last February, which was meant as guidance for the private sector on how to best respect their customers' privacy.

"Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data," reads a statement on the White House' page on the issue. And President Obama is quoted as saying: “American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online.”

No mention was made of whether political opinions provided to a party volunteer knocking on the door of individuals' homes is considered 'private.'

The idea is even more controversial on the state level because in recent years state attorneys general have been active in pursuing data brokers hawking individuals' information without first notifying them.

Brighton acknowledged that voters might not like the idea of their opinions being sold off. But he noted that many states already have laws prohibiting the sale of voter files for commercial purposes, and that it isn't likely that his company would sell access to voter opinions to private sector companies.

"If someone's knocking on your door and saying: 'I'm volunteering for this purpose,' they might see it as a bait and switch," he said. "Maybe it's a bad idea. Maybe we won't do it. Based on the feedback from Lois' article, we probably won't."

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