What Is Constituent Data Tracking?
Who is influencing your opinions this election season?
Lots of industries collect and use consumer data — entertainment, news, healthcare, e-commerce — that’s certainly nothing new. But constituent data tracking, put simply, is the big-picture view of how political campaigns work to frame and influence you as a voter. This kind of data tracking is happening to you everywhere. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve been targeted — via location data and/or smartphone apps — for certain propaganda in an effort to influence your political views.
Here at Ghostery, we prioritize your privacy in all its forms. Our hope is to raise awareness on this issue so that you’re empowered to take control of the data that’s collected about you. Remember that groups and organizations are desperately trying to advertise to you, influence what you believe, and most importantly, how you vote!
Who tracks and sells your data? What do your elected officials know about you? How does your campaign contribution affect the demographic data stored about you? How is that data shared and sold to other advertisers? With Ghostery, you will gain a higher level of clarity and control over how you’re being tracked. The Ghostery Browser Extension detects and blocks thousands of third-party data-tracking technologies – giving you control of your own data.
In the next section, we’ll look at some alarming real-world examples of Americans being tracked, the implications of that data collection, and more ways to prevent surveillance.
What Do You Have to Hide?
Have you heard the joke about the man who enters the geofence confessional in a Catholic church? It turns out this isn’t a joke at all, but a morally questionable tracking technology used to spy on hordes of unsuspecting Americans, Catholic or not. Geofencing — knowing what you like, where you live, where you worship, where you shop — is one small part of the larger issue of digital privacy at large.
See, your smartphone is constantly in touch with cellphone towers, and your cellular service provider then collects and sells that data to third-party advertisers and marketers. Maybe you think that you have nothing to hide but the issue goes far beyond targeted ads. Did you know that federal law does not prohibit geofencing? Under current law, app makers and cellular providers don’t have to disclose the information being collected and sold about you.
In the case of Catholic churchgoers, geofencing technology is used to identify and track smartphones on church property. A political action group called CatholicVote has been using location data and other personally identifiable information to send influential advertisements to Catholics in the hopes it will sway them to vote for candidates with similar views on hot-button social issues. For example, CatholicVote sent about 600,000 ads via smartphones to targeted voters for five Senate races in 2018.
The idea of data mining while people worship was already causing outrage, according to an NPR interview, but knowing “that data is going to be used for political purposes added to their problems with this.”
Yet in a recent CatholicVote blog post entitled “Can he win?”, the organization admits its massive data collection, tracking practices, and 2020 presidential campaign advertisements are now “set to reach millions of Catholic voters who will decide the outcome of the election.” There are plenty of other groups employing similar strategies to harvest data on potential voters. During recent protests around the country, for example, political groups gathered intel from protesters’ cellphones so they could then send targeted messaging about voting and other social issues.
Political Data Mining
Data protection can certainly feel like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. In addition to political action groups, there are software companies that help groups collect information about you. For example, a firm called AnalyticsIQ promises that its customers will get to “know voters like you know your friends.”
AnalyticsIQ says its data can:
- reach voters based on liberal v. conservative views
- determine voters’ likelihood to head to the polls
- measure voters’ persuadability
- compare the likelihood to donate to a party, candidate, or cause
- track constituent view on important social topics
How does AnalyticsIQ do all this, exactly? Its team has amassed an Orwellian-named tracking database called PeopleCore, which has personal “core” data on more than 241 million Americans, including:
- Age, gender, marital status, and family structure
- Income and net worth
- Discretionary spend across product categories
- Religious and political affiliations
- Housing data
- Credit history and activity
- Investment types and activity
Big companies (AnalyticsIQ customers include Experian and Oracle) and political marketers then use the data to greatly influence how you think. (Want to opt-out of having AnalyticsIQ sniff you out around the web? You can do that here.)
In the next section, we’ll look at the threats of tracking technology, pixels, and how Facebook’s targeted ads work.
Surveillance and Online Ads
The sort of digital surveillance mentioned in the previous section exists because many companies and apps track you online using cookie-like pixels after you’ve agreed to their data collection policies and terms of service.
Companies collecting data about you might also have a partnership with another company, which opens the door to something known as “piggybacked trackers.” These snippets of code are used by analytics and advertising firms to collect data in order to construct a more detailed picture of a consumer’s online behavior. But this network of partners can be risky, because even without the first party knowing, there are risks for someone else to get access to your sensitive personal data. (Piggybacked trackers are often what leads to e-commerce data breaches, for example.)
How can you keep trackers from following you around the internet? Using tools like Ghostery’s privacy-focused browser extension, VPN, and ad-blocking solutions on your mobile and desktop devices will halt most data-gathering altogether.
The Ghostery Browser Extension will show all of the trackers found on a website. You can then choose to block all tracking technology, block only specific trackers, or mark some sites as “trusted” with a simple tap.
How Facebook Ads Target You
Back in 2013, Facebook started offering advertising pixels, which are small pieces of code that an advertiser embeds onto their website. Facebook can match the pixel information (date, time, URL, and browser type) to your profile, even if you’re logged out of Facebook (or don’t even have a Facebook account at all). Creepy, right? Even creepier, there is currently no Facebook privacy setting that turns off tracking altogether.
With this profile they’ve now built, campaigns can create Facebook ads and target you based on certain algorithms that predict whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. Let’s say you see a political ad on Facebook and click on the link. Now you’re on the website and enter your name and email address, which is then merged with other datasets they’ve purchased about you and your email address.
Unfortunately, Facebook ads are notorious for not being fact-checked and the company is accused of not being transparent with data concerning its political ads. If you’re in a certain demographic, then you’re more than likely targeted for certain propaganda, even if the ads aren’t entirely true.
Profits Over Transparency
It’s been argued that money-hungry tech companies benefit from a marketing infrastructure that values profits above transparency. Data privacy researcher Manuel Beltrán has explained that “the more hidden that all these mechanisms of targeted propaganda remain, the more effective the business model continues to be. I think that’s the kind of conversation that Facebook does not want to have: that their business model is systematically opposed to transparency when it comes to political advertisements.”
According to Pew Research, Facebook’s algorithm also assigns some users to groups by “multicultural affinity.” Alarmingly, it wasn’t until 2018, after ProPublica investigations and pressure from Congress, that Facebook agreed it would no longer let advertisers unlawfully exclude users by race, religion, sexual orientation, and other protected classes. This raises another thorny question about constituent data tracking: while some organizations are trying to influence your vote, some other entities could be tracking your behaviors to send ads that dissuade you from voting at all!
Today, data is traded faster and more easily, but data privacy regulations are moving at a snail’s pace. In the next section, we’ll compare emerging privacy regulations, cover what a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” would entail, and whether politicians use tracking technology on their own campaign websites.
Consumer Privacy: Law and Order
If you could shape a fair legal framework around data privacy, would it include things like consent or monetary payment for certain pieces of information? Remember, geofencing and tracking aren’t illegal. There’s a lack of unified national sentiment and no federal law protecting what companies track, store, and sell about you.
The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) is the first and only U.S. law of its kind and a step in the right direction: any company that does business in California must implement security practices to protect consumer data. The law went into effect January 1, 2020, and mandates that companies:
- post their digital privacy notices in an accessible format.
- honor users’ Do Not Track privacy settings.
- clearly explain what types of information will be collected and how the information will be shared.
- offer a global opt-out option (to allow consumers to opt out of all sales of personal information).
The law shares elements of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect in 2018. However, some say GDPR is far more stringent, as it covers all personal data, regardless of source; CCPA only considers data that was provided by a consumer and only helps California residents.
Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights
Here at Ghostery, we just released our Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Report, which revealed distrust over how big tech companies and the government handle your private data. In the survey, 77% said ownership of their personal data should be a constitutional right. And 35% said they do not trust that the organizations that have access to personal information and location data will keep it private.
“State by state, there are a hodgepodge of laws addressing consumer privacy but none have asked consumers directly what they want their protection to look like. We’ve asked them, and their voice is loud and clear, privacy is a human right and without consent or payment, their data should remain theirs,” explains Jeremy Tillman, President of Ghostery.
According to the survey, if Americans could get paid when companies use their data, the top 5 most valuable pieces of data would be:
- Internet browsing history (49%)
- Income and occupation (46%)
- Location data (45%)
- Email content (37%)
- Age (34%)
Rounding out the personal data price tag, Americans would also want payment for data about their gender/sexual orientation (26%); race/ethnicity (27%); relationship status (19%); and religion (16%).
Transparency as Civic Responsibility
Transparency is fundamental to democracy. As a voter, you deserve to have a clearer picture of what data is gathered about you by the politicians you vote into office. What types of digital surveillance do they use to track their constituents? Because as we all wade through the unknown of a Covid-19 pandemic election season, we know this much is true:
- Digital ads, social media, and online campaigning are in.
- In-person rallies, hand-shaking, and baby-kissing photo-ops are decidedly out.
So this means that campaign staffers are pressed for even more ways to reach potential voters online. Are your favorite political candidates using tracking technology? Pick your favorite politician and take a few minutes to determine whether their political message aligns with what’s happening on their site.
You can easily use Ghostery to see how many trackers are present. Visit https://www.ghostery.com/products/ and your browser will be autodetected to guide you to the correct install button.
Indeed, a 2019 analysis by Wired found that 41% of U.S. Representatives and 80% of U.S. Senators use tracking pixels on their campaign websites. Among party lines, the study showed that:
- 90% of Republican senators (47 out of 52) use pixels.
- 73% of Democratic senators (33 out of 45) user pixels.
- 50% of Independent senators use pixels (Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, yes; Maine’s Angus King, no).
Final Thoughts on Constituent Data Tracking
In this post, you’ve learned how organizations work to influence ads and shape how you vote. As a voter, you deserve transparency about the way political groups use your data. Now that you know how and why constituent data tracking infringes on your personal privacy, how do you want to proceed?
If you’re ready to try a top-rated ad-blocking and data privacy solution, we invite you to test out Ghostery.
For more, check out https://www.ghostery.com/pricing/