Aug 9 2012

Has Your House Been Flagged? Does a New App Erode Your Privacy?

Residents can have their household information removed   –

Curious about your neighbors?  A new free app (computer application) lets political canvassers – and anyone else – pinpoint the first name, age and gender of persons living  in their neighborhood.

The app provides a Google map that, based on the user’s current location, identifies nearby households with registered Democrats using small blue flags.  For voter or voters who live there, the app displays: “Lori C., 68 F, Democrat.”

As a result, the app will effectively identify homes in the vicinity of the user likely to be occupied by an elderly couple, or a woman as young as 18 or 19 – or  less likely to have a male occupant.  In residential areas such as Piedmont, the likely presence of young children could also be extrapolated from homes with adult couples under the age of 45.

A spokesman for the campaign organization that created  the app states, “Any voter who requests not to be contacted again is immediately removed” by calling 312-698-3670.

The data displayed by the app is technically public information which is often collected by campaigns and given to volunteers.  The intent is that campaign volunteers will no longer have to visit a  field office and wait to receive a clipboard and a printed-out list of addresses before going to neighborhoods for votes.  But, the effect of the app will be that age and gender, as well as political affiliation, will be online and instantly accessible to anybody with a single click, whether the user happens to be a solicitor, a non-profit organization looking for donations, a commercial enterprise trolling for sales, a curious neighbor, or a burglar driving through the neighborhood looking for an easy target.

Shaun Dakin, a voter privacy advocate and longtime critic of political robo calling, called the new app a “total privacy fail“.  In the Washington Post he points out that “Anybody can get this. There’s no way to prevent anyone from downloading this” and questioned why the app included the ages of nearby voters.  The need to post gender or first names is equally unclear. 

Experts cannot say whether the app is flagging all Democratic households or only selected Democratic homes targeted by the creator of the app, an organization known for its extensive use of technology, the internet, and novel data mining techniques.

In response to privacy concerns, the New York Times reports a spokesperson for the Obama for America organization as saying, “anyone familiar with the political process in America knows this information about registered voters is available and easily accessible to the public.”  This week the Obama campaign further asserted to the Washington Post that the information is not only public, but “has long been available online”, without stating whether existing online access is free or fee-based. An Obama statement states that the app is “100 percent consistent with publicly available voter rolls”.

Salon reports a spokesman says the app detects when a user submits “way too many voter contacts in a short period of time” and the {name} Obama for America campaign will “follow up with appropriate action, including alerting appropriate authorities, if necessary, in the case of abuse or inappropriate behavior” and shows a limited number of addresses at one time.

Any user can also add a note or email address to any flagged home which will be transmitted to the campaign’s central database. For instance, any neighbor or friend of “Lori C 68 F, Democrat” has the ability to add the email address of Lori to the database, without her knowledge or participation.

If contacted to remove the data, the organization will request further information, including your full name and email address.  However, the organization confirmed that the Digital Department will remove the flag and identifying information for your home, upon request, without requiring an email.

Residents may contact the organization at 312-698-3670 to remove information regarding your home from the website.  (An email contact is not provided.)

 Further Reading:  Washington Post article

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