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Surveillance Scandal Casts a Shadow Over Data-Driven Dems at Netroots Nation

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, June 24 2013

Image: g4ll4is/Flickr

The subject of personal privacy in the digital age loomed large in the minds of many attendees of this year's Netroots Nation in San Jose as the national debate continued over the ethics of the Obama Administration's national security surveillance techniques. So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that the political operatives who capitalized on the American electorate's personal data to achieve victory in 2012 felt a bit defensive last week as they celebrated their cutting-edge strategies to beat back state-level conservative initiatives, and to elect Democratic candidates.

"There was a study done that showed that most Americans would be turned off if they knew they were being targeted, but we did it anyway, and it was tremendously successful," declared Christopher W. Massicotte, chief operating officer of DSPolitical in a Thursday session on the successful application of data to win campaigns in 2012. DSPolitical is a company that describes itself as "the home of the political cookie."

"What do you think Facebook will do with all that data?" he asked, cheekily, of a packed conference room of about 80 Netroots Nation attendees. A mix of activists, people from the non-profit world and political technology vendors, they all wanted to know how the panelists from Catalist, Facebook, 76Words and Planned Parenthood used data on individuals to influence public opinion.

Massicotte was reflexively aware of potential comparisons between his industry's work -- a form of digital surveillance on the American electorate -- and that of the National Security Agency's. Without any prompting, he justified the political advertising industry's work on gathering information about individuals by saying that the information used is self-reported, and not involuntarily grabbed.

(In answer to a follow-up question on how voluntary the disclosure of all this personal information really is, Massicotte responded: "The point I was making is that no one is breaking the law with what they're doing with regards to data collection and usage. The privacy statements and user agreements that we all click, 'Yes I agree,' say that your data may be used in aggregate for purposes of marketing, etc." And he added that he made the distinction between his work and the NSA's because he's had to field questions about the nature of his work after the news of the NSA's surveillance broke.)

Gayatri N. Bhalla, chief operating officer of the Democratic data firm Catalist, felt compelled to explain to the audience that "We're not becoming Edward Snowden, we're not becoming the NSA," as she explained how Catalist profiles the American electorate by selling access to their digitized voting histories.

Catalist is a Democratically-oriented database company established several years ago by former Clinton White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. The Washington, D.C.-based company takes voter files from the offices of Secretaries of State and makes voter history dating back to 2000 available to left-leaning organizations. It also combines that data with "demographic," and "commercial" data to provide organizations with sharper marketing insights.

To get sense of how integral Catalist has become to the left, Gayatri at one point said "We are the public utility of the progressive movement." At another, she said that the company is the "Intel Inside" of the left.

Dozens of different kinds of nonpartisan organizations and toolmakers, such as TurboVote, Rock the Vote, and Amicus, as well as progressive and political campaigns, such as Women's Voices, Women Vote, the League of Conservation Voters and others, make use of the voter data compiled by Catalist. DSPolitical partners with Catalist to target online digital ads. Catalist is also partnering with Facebook in a program that Facebook rolled out last summer called "custom audiences." That enables advertisers to match Facebook profiles to the e-mail lists that organizations enter into the system to target specific ads to that logged-in, self-reported profiled audience. Facebook itself, pointed out Jamie Ruth, Facebook's account manager for U.S. politics during the panel, also rolled out partnerships with the data brokerages Acxiom, Datalogix and Epsilon last April to enable advertisers to target individuals "who are known to have donated to liberal campaigns in the past and/or bought a red pickup truck."

That might explain the general absence of moral outrage at disclosures that the Obama administration, as described by the Washington Post and The Guardian, has been tracking who Americans call and for how long, as well, under a separate program, collecting some of their emails and other electronic communications incidental to surveillance of foreigners — all of which is done under an oversight scheme that is itself now the subject of public scrutiny.

Several people who grew up as part of the networked activist movement who have been attending Netroots Nation since its inception -- and who are now political professionals and operatives -- expressed a reservations about judging President Obama's surveillance activities because they weren't sure of the "complexities" involved in the discussion.

Many of them indicated disappointment, but some of them, such as Chelsea Bond, program director of Death Penalty Focus, a non-profit in San Francisco, said that she half expected that people such as herself were being monitored anyway.

"[President Obama] was supposed to be all about transparency, but clearly, that's not the case," she said.

When House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi's asserted during a lunch Q&A that the Obama administration isn't as intrusive as the Bush Administration, Bond demurred.

"It's not good enough," she told me.

The "balance" at issue — that's between privacy and sharing-powered commerce, not privacy and security — is a question that policymakers on Capitol Hill have been trying to tackle for years, and one that state legislatures, such as California's, are still grappling with. In the latest stab at trying to find some balanced approach, the Federal Trade Commission last December announced that it is investigating how data brokerages compile information about individuals in order to come up with better recommendations on how to better protect consumer privacy.

Campaigners using the data and the tools say that they help them to reach audiences who might be sympathetic to their cause and to activate people to turn out the vote.

"For us, this really is a matter of: We really don't have that big of a budget, and we really needed to be efficient with what we had," said Heather Holdridge, Planned Parenthood's director of digital strategy.

She said that the ad targeting data and tools offered by companies such as DSPolitical, Facebook and Catalist "doubled our reach," and helped Planned Parenthood to defeat conservative initiatives, such as a proposed Mississippi state constitutional amendment that would have defined human life "to include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the equivalent thereof."

The Sunlight Foundation ranked the Planned Parenthood Action Fund as the independent group that enjoyed the "best return on investment" for all the $6,886,468 it spent on advertising for and against political candidates during the 2012 political cycle.

And Catalist's data also enabled Sarah Flowers, a partner at 76 words, to do test messaging about gay marriage in Minnesota in 2012. Last November, just over half of Minnesota's voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The state legislature approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage this May.

Flowers said during the panel that the data, combined with commercial data, enabled her firm to customize YouTube pre-roll issue advertisements online targeted towards specific audiences in Minnesota, such as Catholics and Lutherans.

Those who have not become part of the professional political class weren't so sanguine about the NSA revelations.

"The surveillance stuff is inexcusable," said Arthur J. Corbin, a 63-year-old gay rights activist, in an interview. Corbin lives in San Francisco and has worked as an activist on campaigns and committees with Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif) and gay rights activist and San Francisco Board Supervisor Harvey Milk.

"We have a parallel police state now," he said. "And they figured out somewhere along the way that you don’t need to threaten people. You don’t even to interfere with their lives, as 1984 suggested. You just install this security apparatus and put it in effect, and surround it with lots of secrecy. The data centers they’re building -- all of the costs that they’re estimating are probably way low – and once they put that in place, they’re not going to switch it off."

And he doesn't put much stock in Congress exercising its oversight role.

"Congress has no vested interest in stopping the national security state. It’s to their benefit to have everyone on edge. They have calculated this out," said Corbin. "The only thing that will work is large-scale, near riots, on the scale of the Vietnam War demonstrations. And it’s not going to happen. People are too busy trying to keep up financially."

John M. Stafford, a graphic designer from Corpus Christi, Texas, who makes political signs and buttons for campaigns (Obama's 2012 campaign included) was more philosophical. He's a long-time attendee of Netroots Nation and maintains a blog at the Daily Kos.

"It's not a scandal, it's a discussion we need to have out in the open about what kind of country we want to live in," he said about what needs to be done in light of The Guardian's NSA expose.

Responding to my question about the differences between progressives' use of political data and the NSA's activities, Jim White, a blogger for, summed up the mood at Netroots Nation by saying:

To me, there's a huge difference between gathering up data that's freely available and public, and using that for your cause, compared to the government sucking up every bit of information, telling us that we don't have standing to ask what's being collected about us, and then using that information, and not telling us how long they're going to keep it. They claim that they have rules about destroying information inadvertently collected about Americans, and that's likely not the case.