Is your neighbor a Democrat? Obama has an app for that

The Obama campaign has developed a "creepy" new app that offers a glimpse of your neighbors' political affiliations

Published August 6, 2012 3:50PM (EDT)

Screenshots taken from two different searches of the Obama for America app, which displays the names and addresses of nearby Democratic voters.
Screenshots taken from two different searches of the Obama for America app, which displays the names and addresses of nearby Democratic voters.

This originally appeared on ProPublica.

Curious how many Democrats live on your block? Just download the Obama campaign's new mobile app.

The app, released last week, includes a Google map for canvassers that recognizes your current location and marks nearby Democratic households with small blue flags.

For each targeted address, the app displays the first name, age and gender of the voter or voters who live there: "Lori C., 58 F, Democrat."

All this is public information, which campaigns have long given to volunteers. But you no longer have to schedule a visit to a field office and wait for a staffer to hand you a clipboard and a printed-out list of addresses.

With the Obama app, getting a glimpse of your neighbor's political affiliation can take seconds.

While The New York Times dubbed the app "the science-fiction dream of political operatives," some of the voters who appear in the app are less enthusiastic about it.

"I do think it's something useful for them, but it's also creepy," said Lori Carena, 58, a long-time Brooklyn resident, when she was shown the app. "My neighbors across the street can know that I'm a Democrat. I'm not sure I like that."

It's unclear if the app displays all registered Democrats who live in a certain area, or only a subset of voters President Obama's campaign is trying to reach.

Asked about the privacy aspects of the new app, a spokesperson for the Obama campaign wrote that "anyone familiar with the political process in America knows this information about registered voters is available and easily accessible to the public."

The information included in the app has "traditionally been available to anyone who walks into a campaign field office," said the spokesperson, who declined to be named.

While the app makes voter information instantly available, it displays only a small cluster of addresses at a time. It has built-in mechanisms to detect when people are misusing the data, "such as people submitting way too many voter contacts in a short period of time," the spokesman said.

"The campaign is strongly committed to ensuring the safety and privacy of the public and follows up with appropriate action, including alerting appropriate authorities if necessary, in any case of abuse or inappropriate behavior," said the spokesperson. "Any voter who requests not to be contacted again is immediately removed from any provided to volunteers."

This isn't the first time campaigns have released digital tools that make voter information freely available.

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns currently have online calling tools that give anyone who registers for their websites the names and phone numbers of voters to contact.

In 2008, the Obama campaign's "Neighbor to Neighbor" program allowed volunteers to use their home computers to print out lists of names and addresses to contact.

Two years later, the Democratic group Organizing for America, formed to keep mobilizing the president's supporters after Obama was elected, released a mobile app that was in some ways a prototype of Obama's new app. Volunteers in the 2010 midterm elections could use their mobile phones to map voters in their immediate vicinity and then send in responses from the voters they had contacted, which eliminated the need for clipboards and printed lists.

Natalie Foster, who was the new media director of Organizing for America, said the tools used in 2010 had built-in privacy limits, "where you are only given a certain number of voters that you could conceivably canvass. If somebody goes above that limit, or is just obviously clicking a button over or over, we'll just shut it down."

Privacy "was definitely a consideration and something that was focused on, to make sure people aren't just going in and downloading a lot of data," said Joshua Hendler, the former director of technology for Organizing for America.

Foster, who is now the CEO of the economic advocacy group Rebuild the Dream, and Hendler, who now works for PR firm Hill and Knowlton Strategies, said that making voter information more open makes the political process more democratic, because it lowers the barrier for people to get involved in political campaigns.

Shaun Dakin, a voter privacy advocate and longtime critic of political robocalling, flagged the Obama app last week as a "total privacy fail."

Dakin, who criticized the Obama campaign's 2008 Neighbor to Neighbor program on similar grounds, said voters should have the right to opt out of being contacted by political campaigns.

He also questioned why the Obama app included the ages of nearby voters, another piece of information that people might not want to have made public.

Lori Carena, the Brooklyn voter, said she doesn't object to having canvassers knock on her door. In fact, she said she wishes it happened more often in New York, a state that's such a Democratic stronghold she feels the campaign isn't interested in hearing her concerns.

Asked what she feels is the difference between the traditional way of canvassing — with voter names and addresses on a printed-out list — and the new mobile app, she said, "Well, I just don't get all this new stuff with computers and apps. That's probably more creepy to me."

Even low-tech tools used to distribute voter data can upset some voters. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this June that a liberal group in Wisconsin was sending fliers to voters which included a list of their neighbors and whether they had voted in 2008 and 2010.

The fliers encouraged recipients to help get out the vote for the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. Some voters were angry that their names and addresses were being distributed publicly.

"I think this is invasion of my privacy and every other woman's privacy. It's like — 'Here, this is where all the women are,'" one woman told the Journal Sentinel.

Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and the co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said the Obama app represented a significant shift. While voter data has been "technically public," it is usually accessed only by political campaigns and companies that sell consumer data.

He said it was "heartening" that the app makes data available to citizens who want to talk to their neighbors about their political choices.

"The purpose of this app may be Democrats visiting Democrats. I can see apps where you ask Republicans to visit Democrats and Democrats to visit Republicans."

"If we're comfortable enough to have [this information] go into the maw of big data processors, both political and otherwise, it seems consistent for neighbors to talk to neighbors over it," he said.

"Much of our feelings around privacy are driven by what you might call status-quo-ism," he said, so many people may feel that the app is creepy simply because it represents something new.

Interested to learn more about how political groups are using your personal information? See our reporting on tailored campaign emails and the new wave of targeted online ads.

By Lois Beckett

MORE FROM Lois Beckett

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