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How Data Privacy Affects the Midterm Elections

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Read more about author Timur Yarnall.

Until fairly recently, I was considered somewhat of a data privacy watchdog by my family and friends. I have all my privacy settings set to the max, I don’t download shady apps, no matter how popular they may be, and I am mistrustful of most requests for my personal data. But my behavior was the exception. 

“What do you have to hide?” my friends would ask me jokingly as I repeatedly rejected requests for my email address or opted to only accept strictly necessary cookies. 

The ethics of data use are a relatively recent concern. Most Americans claim to be worried about data privacy, but the overwhelming majority do nothing about it. In the best-case scenario, this just means internet users are served a lot of targeted ads, but in the worst-case scenario, online data can be used to sway elections. In 2016, the world saw how political candidates microtargeted voters based on data harvested from big tech platforms.

Suddenly, everyone cared about data privacy. And then did nothing about it. Despite former Meta-née-Facebook employees testifying in Congress about the practice of unrestricted microtargeting of consumers, there is still no law restricting or even monitoring data collection and usage in elections. Facebook got a $643,000 slap on the wrist for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the world moved on.

Today, we’re facing a very similar political landscape. Tools exist to help political candidates influence voter behavior on an extremely granular level, whether it’s an ad campaign aimed at deterring Black voters from voting or swaying voters based on their views on gun control. Natasha Singer writes in the New York Times that “next door neighbors streaming the same true crime show on the same streaming service may now be shown different political ads, based on data about their voting record, party affiliation, age, gender, race or ethnicity, estimated home value, shopping habits, or views on gun control.” 

In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal finally motivated the nation to restrict and monitor candidate finances, which ultimately allowed more transparency over how donors were able to influence politicians with gifts of money. Today, it’s time to put similar regulations in place, forcing candidates to disclose exactly how they classify and target voters. 

It Doesn’t Have to Be Complex

In practice, it would not be difficult to implement such regulations. In fact, I believe it’d be easier logistically than the financial regulation overhaul 50 years ago. The main difficulty would be mustering the political will to get it done. 

The actual mechanics of monitoring and regulating data aren’t hard because that kind of oversight already exists. Ask any marketers, and they’ll be able to tell you the tools they use to track and use data to target customers, like Tableau, Google 360, or Adobe Marketing Cloud. Most of them already compile reports like the ones I’m proposing on a weekly basis. If Netflix can report how they serve personalized thumbnails for viewers based on genre, viewing habits, and real-time behavioral data, then politicians can explain how they target voters based on demographic, activity, or preference data.

Political candidates and their campaign teams use the same reporting tools marketers have been using for decades. New privacy regulations wouldn’t change anything, except to require campaigns to disclose how they find and use the data.

The Point Is Greater Transparency

What’s the point of getting political campaigns to disclose their use of voter data to microtarget users? Wouldn’t it be better to limit use altogether? In an ideal world, I would agree. And I believe we should push hard for this kind of regulation. But in the meantime, demanding transparency and oversight is a good first step.

Campaign finance disclosure laws don’t stop corporations like Amazon from giving money to election-denier candidates. But they do allow reporters like Judd Legum to spot Amazon doing this, call the company out, and effectively regulate Amazon’s behavior. Equally, campaign data disclosure laws wouldn’t stop anti-choice candidates from targeting your dad because he went to church twice this week. But they would allow voters to be aware of the targeting – and journalists or media organizations could call those candidates out.

This kind of transparency would also be helpful to get the needle moving on passing laws to regulate the use of data altogether. With so many issues across the political spectrum, it’s easy for representatives and senators to focus on other seemingly more important topics. But if privacy advocates were able to prove, with data, how campaigns were routinely misusing data and profiling voters, that would be much harder to ignore. Ultimately, oversight and transparency could lead to a world in which data privacy is protected and microtargeting voters is illegal.

This topic is starting to gain traction. American voters are worried, even if they’re not changing their behavior yet. Many platforms have already started banning political ads in the run-up to elections. But there’s much more that citizens, governments, and even businesses can do to prioritize the privacy of voter data. 

Microtargeting of voters is a powerful tool. It’s critical to create a legal framework around the use of microtargeting in our politics. It’s the responsibility of our government, our marketing platforms, and each of us as citizens to ensure that we create data privacy regulations that help our democracy evolve for the better. 

To repeat my friends’ words to me, what do these political campaigns have to hide? If they’re not ashamed of their microtargeting behavior, they should be happy to show how they use data to reach groups of voters with specific characteristics.

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