by Eileen | 3:48 pm, February 7, 2013 | Comments Off
Might the Colorado Democratic Party be about to sell out its voters to credit card companies and other ghastly for-profit entities? Officially, they won’t say. When ProPublica contacted state chair Beverly Ryken, she, along with 11 other state party leaders, declined to comment as to whether or not her party would cooperate with the DNC in selling datasets compiled about voters to commercial interests.
The RNC, in contrast, has categorically stated they never have and ever will sell voter data. This doesn’t mean they may not lie. It means they are willing to commit themselves to a stance. In a business where no one answers the question they’re asked, that’s refreshing.
Right now, various lefty interests are engaged in a bit of a turf war over specific and sensitive data about voters and activists. The DNC has its own project – the one tempting state chairs to sell out their voters. There is also the mighty Catalist and the newly rechristened Organizing for Action. Personally, I am delighted to see signs of a schism in the leviathan of collectivist data-mining. And yet I am sure they’ll sort out their differences all too soon.
Let’s take a history lesson, shall we?
Democrats have long obsessed over assembling caches of personal data. I commented on it last month.
Democrats’ first attempt to monetize data, under Terry McAuliffe’s rein in 2004, solicited state parties to turn over the data sets to the DNC in return for the later return of a new set, enriched with InfoUSA datapoints on voters. Obvious and uncouth, it failed. In 2004, the GOP was undeniably winning the data wars and Voter Vault was a source of fever dreams to Democratic operatives. Since then, Republicans have backslid on microtargeting. Democratic ambitions, meanwhile, have soared in scope while becoming a lot more subtle.
One reason the left is streaking ahead on data is that they have embraced the practice of framing data mining as a tactic in the larger strategy of offering services – truly representative candidates and a responsive party. It’s not a bad way to get around the moral minefield of the privacy implications of surveillance – just insist it’s all for a higher goal.
2006 saw the birth of Catalist, a George Soros baby with $5 million in seed funding. Nominally respectful of FEC oversight and also nominally for-profit, Catalist is purely dedicated to the perpetual victory march of the Left. They’re frightfully good at it, too. Any left-leaning group who contracts with Catalist gives something back as part of the terms. And that something is always more data.
A plethora of leftist groups set on Catalist, contributing datapoints specific to the demographics and issues they targeted. Rather quickly, the master dataset became the stuff of legend. At the same time, a cadre of brilliant statistical and analytical minds were constructing algorithms that pulled every possible bit of value from the data and went further still, increasing the value of the data by sussing out patterns that could then be applied.
There is hope for we forlorn centrists and righties. Catalist has loosed a wolf within the flock. Standard operating procedure in politics is to guard a list with one’s life, preventing the rise of hyper-precise, constantly refined mega-sets. Catalist bet that organizations would step away from that, publicizing their data to Catalist and its other clients in return for a copy of what everyone else had. It worked. At least for a while.
In 2011, a fretting DNC was sorely aware of the business it had lost and partnered with a Catalist competitor to form the National Voter File Co-op. The name alone intones a phantasmagorical marriage of socialist realism with cute state college pseduo-Marxism. (Oh, hey, here’s one. “How is an unreconstrucuted Stalinist like an undergraduate? Neither one can accomplish a damn thing in five years.” God, I’m just a riot.) I’d offer congratulations but it is honestly hard to tell if those people are being funny intentionally.
The NVFC (even the acronym sounds so pre-Glasnost. It’s teriffic, isn’t it?) contracts with state parties to sell their data in return for a kickback…oops, sorry, for a ‘share’. Initially, their targets were the same coterie of barking moonbats with whom Catalist is cozy. But, overwhelming as they may seem when eleventy-bazillion are crowding the National Mall and holding peace-ins to support a bailout of the fur-bearing trout farms and I’m trying to go to my job, there are not enough barking moonbats to keep both Catalist and the NVFC as bloated as befits their stations.
Also, given that George Soros funds everything the left does anyway, paying for Catalist and funding its clients is money laundering with a poorer return than the mob offers.
Once upon a time, a bright-eyed lawyer from Chicago-on-Hawai’i, armed only with disdain for all other men and a moral center made of moldy green Jell-O and coffee grounds, had a dream – to play a lot of golf and give long, terrible speeches. And so, he contracted with Catalist. Obviously, Barry didn’t share all the data his campaigns collected, instead generating what was, until recently, the Obama for America dataset. As of a few days ago, it’s Organizing for Action. That group itself, in its alpha iteration, goes back to 2008, when it was created to pester the DNC on behalf of POTUS Barry. Now, with no need for a re-election bid, Obama for America is now gone the way of all things and Organizing for Action has come into its own, a (c)(4) that swears it will disclose donors in the name of transparency.
To recap, OFA is now OFA. You still can’t see the data. Carry on. Perhaps there’s a concern that Obama’s supporters can only handle so many acronyms – the Obama persona is condescending. Perhaps someone was too cheap to spring for new letterhead. The point is that the Obama campaign’s data set is now in the hands of Organizing for Action, which will keep Democratic aspirants to public office on their knees to the Obama machine for a good long while.
Now, by the same impenetrable reasoning that informs people who pray to geodes and sort their friends by the color in which they glow, some of Obama’s former staffers have announced they know what causes and organizations an Obama supporter will…um…support. People who gave their data to OFA before it became OFA have no say in this, naturally. It’s already been established that OFA does not disclose the full scope of what data it collects and offers no way for someone to truly purge himself from the database. Others have decided for them that this is what they’d want. Human will and observable reality will play no part here. They’re progressives. It’s what they do.
The OFA list has always been one of the most closely guarded. It’s apparently so big and so good that it was a legitimate question to ask if the DNC even had the capability to handle the data. The set may go stale simply because the effort and budget needed to keep something that massive up-to-date can’t be maintained for much longer than an election season. OFA, though, isn’t guessing on that point. They’re testing. Whatever they learn about running and deploying a truly gargantuan dataset will be fed right back to Democratic candidates and operatives in time for 2014. In fact, with a few gubernatorial races this fall, the preliminary results are coming very soon.
I suspect some of this underlies the fact that the DNC is testing the waters on selling data, insisting it’s all just abstract chatter, but then refusing to disavow the idea. I don’t think they’re gleeful about violating voter trust, but they’ll do a lot to to grab some ground back from Catalist and OFA. Data-mining has rich potential to become a race to the bottom. Some might say it already has. The winner is the one who observes no scruples in what he’ll do to get data and to whom he’ll sell it. It’s more than just ego. It’s about money and the DNC worrying that it might cease to be the true center of Democratic aims.
Part of any contract the DNC would enter into with a corporate entity to sell data would include getting data in return. The DNC’s NVFC is third banana to Catalist and OFA. Both of those belong to the party’s left flank and I know there are Dems who are either personally closer to the center or who know they must moderate themselves to win their particular seats. In that NVFC is an attempt to prevent either George Soros or Barack Obama from controlling the party’s data and undermining the DNC, I have to respect the effort, though I question the underlying logic.
But I am astonished they don’t know how much good will they’ll wipe out by selling voters and all their personal data to telemarketers and credit cards vendors. I often argue that people should refrain from gathering, using, and selling data, even when that operates to their own financial detriment, because it’s the moral and the humane thing to to. But I am also of the school the moral and the efficient will align. Spying and selling is no doubt a short-term boon to anyone’s position and bottom line. Those who favor unlimited spying – the Zuckerbergs of the world – bank that people will ultimately accept the near-total loss of privacy in return for services. Perhaps they also foretell a brave new world of total transparency where no one has any secrets and everyone is happy about that. Subscribing to such a tenet requires total ignorance of human nature or an unassailable belief that human nature is malleable. Like I said, progressive territory.
My own position is that, through the market mechanism, people – functioning as voters or as consumers – will reward entities that respect their privacy and, more importantly, respect their own control over their data. That’s really what privacy is. It’s not the idea that no one else ever knows anything about you. It’s the idea that you control how your own data are released and used. Economically, it’s the idea that if anyone is profiting from your data, it’s you.
I’m also making a bet. I’m betting the market can protect privacy before profoundly anti-human forces destroy it utterly. People have a vast range of personal subjective expectations of privacy. Both culturally and legally, privacy is heavily normative. What people have done and have gotten away with in the past affects what they can do in the future without inviting social opprobrium or breaking the law. Privacy violations cannot, by their very nature, ever be truly undone. You can’t make people ‘un-know’ something. Nor can you ever be truly certain that someone has destroyed data, whatever promises he might have made.
More and more information is pointing to an educative solution. Pro-surveillance groups point to individual behavior as conclusive proof that most people don’t mind giving up personal data in return for free services and the enhancements that are possible when the service provider knows so much about you. What they ignore is the growing evidence that people don’t understand the extent to which they are being surveilled and are grossly offended when they find out, that people draw a clear line between giving their data to one vendor for specified purposes and that vendor presuming to know what customers want and sharing or selling data at will, and that people often lack a meaningful choice.
What I refer to in this last point is both the practice of vendors offering take-it-or-leave it privacy policies and the unfortunate Third Party doctrine, which, among other things, means that we legally cede our expectation of privacy in return for services that involve third parties – services that we have no realistic choice but to use. In 2013 America, you can live in a cave or you can use services that represent a third-party. Summarily, when people do understand what’s being done with their data and are given meaningful options, they are very much in favor of retaining privacy and controlling their data.
It’s smacks of paternalism to say people don’t want privacy or don’t understand what they want; it’s also circular logic. Proposing to deliberately invade privacy on the grounds that people will come to love ‘total transparency’ leads to the defense that anyone still valuing privacy just hasn’t had enough ‘transparency ‘ – an unfalsifiable lemma built on dangerously inhumane principles. It’s also a wildly incorrect notion of transparency.
Ultimately, what America’s political parties do with the expanses of sensitive data they hold on voters and how fully they abide by the personae they evince in order to get that data will betray their true principles. The American far-Left’s radical hostility to autonomy and individualism could betray its hand sooner than we think. Too, the extent to which the Right, and the GOP-proper, believe their own talking points, is in play.
In my none-too-humble opinion, I think the mere fact the, asked to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether or not they’ll see voter data to decidedly non-political entities is itself an answer. Refusing to answer the question by insisting it’s only hypothetical is balderdash. I know my own principles and can tell you what I’d do in a host of hypothetical situations, some of which are such remote possibilities as to be realistically impossible. If I refuse to answer because, “C’mon, when would that ever happen”, what I’m really doing is avoiding committing to a principle in case I later find it convenient to violate that principle.
When a public figure, such a state party chair, won’t comment on something that is of interest to the public, that lack of an answer is the answer. Categorically committing oneself to not selling data provided in trust for the purposes of electing preferred candidates should not be a difficult answer for an honest leader to make.
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