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The Voter Vault and Demzilla

Feature 1Guess Whose Privacy the RNC and DNC are Violating? Yours.
Guess who’s collecting personal data about you? It’s not just the credit bureaus, libraries, Homeland Security and the FBI. Both Republican and Democrat party agencies have been collecting personal data about voters and analyzing who is most likely to vote in the next election. The data is being used to target ads specifically only to people who are likely to vote, and weeding out wasted money and effort trying to reach groups of people the parties feel won’t vote. Kerry and Bush can be depended on to include lip service to privacy in their election season speeches, but the RNC’s 165 million voter strong “Voter Vault” and the DNC’s 158 million voter “Demzilla” , are being geared up to exploit voter data linked to personal details.




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The Voter Vault and Demzilla    

Roll Call reported the Kerry campaign linked credit reports and personal details to anyone volunteering to assist the campaign.

Guess Whose Privacy the RNC and DNC are Violating? Yours.

[March 4, 2004 evote.com]  The news is abound with black helicopter stories: using cell phone chips to track Al Qaeda, RFID tags embedded in new currency. We’re waiting on the announcement that the government will soon track purchases of Cross pens. (Thanks to terrorists adopting Tom Clancy’s poison pen plot.)

Make no mistake about it. The eagerness and ability of the United States government to gather and analyze information about individuals is expanding exponentially. And it far exceeds any desire to prevent catastrophic terrorism, although this is often used as a pretext or excuse for more government spying, more government control, more limitation of the “self-evident” rights of man, and the continual expansion of the size and payroll of government.

Libraries are reporting to the government what people read. Credit card companies are sharing info on where consumers shop. And this during a president’s administration that is so secretive it is doing everything it can to block the 9/11 investigation. Bush is very concerned about his own privacy, but he sure wants to know all about you.

The White House isn’t alone in his quest for personal information about both terrorists and private citizens (Read: voters). Fueled partly by the extreme increases in the speed of computers and the microscopically close presidential election of 2000 (along with all the money and influence that changes hands with a change of administration), to win the next election the Democratic and Republican parties are now engaged in what is perhaps the largest data-gathering and snooping party ever held. It is their private party to look at us, but we are uninvited. Nor did we even grant them permission to hold the party in the first place. And frankly my dear, they don’t give a damn.

Getting To Know You
The Democratic National Committee said last year it had electronic files on 158 million Americans and counting, with 306 pieces of cross-indexed information attached to every name. Officials appropriately call it “Demzilla". Not to be outdone by its rival, the Republican National Committee said it had 165 million names, called “Voter Vault.”

The good guys who run the federal government keep track of your home address, phone number, email address, ethnicity, religious affiliation, income, age, mortgage data, magazine subscriptions, catalogues received, party identification, charities favored, civic group involvement, whether you contribute to campaigns or bother to vote, what you read and church attendance. Sexual preference is also recorded, as well as gun ownership and views on abortion, among others.

The DNC’s database includes Census data, national consumer data which includes information about marital status, children and home ownership. All this is gathered to communicate more efficiently with voters through phone calls and letters or whatever, and get you to vote for their “knight in shining armor.” The databases help them know which door to knock on, or which particular person in a family should be contacted and persuaded.

Knowing How You Will Vote By What You Buy
Eddie Mahe, a Republican campaign consultant has said, "It's not about the number of names but how much data you can put behind each name that makes the difference.”

If for example a campaign wanted to know every possible Irish-American male more than 50 years old who drives an expensive auto with a litter of four children, they could just pull it up. Or should they want to communicate with militarily hawkish voters, for example, they could pull up all those who are likely to vote and live in proximity to an army base who may vote pro militarily because they might work at the army base. If they want fiscal liberals, they could pull up those who subscribe to Mother Jones or the Nation. (If they want smart ones, they could try and find out who reads EVOTE.COM, but we’ll never tell.) It is all about deciphering the political DNA of each voter. Figuring out which party they may support, which issues are of concern to them, and who best to contact.

Both the RNC and DNC refused to provide to EVOTE.COM a complete list of the kinds of data it gathers on Americans. They like their own privacy, just not for the people. They wish the privacy issue, but not the data-processing technology, would just go away.

Years ago civil libertarians pretty much only worried about the Central Intelligence Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigations peeping into our windows, but recently they have added the Department of Homeland Security and now the political parties. The power is growing. The watchman is ten feet tall.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology and liberty program, has said, “We are really on the cusp of creating a surveillance society where every action, every utterance—some might say every thought—can be traced.”

No Problem Here
“I do not see an issue of privacy,” Tony Welch, DNC Spokesman told EVOTE.COM. “I do not see anything new to this. We are using public information in a more efficient way. We use ours for political messages. It is important for us to talk to voters. It is important for us to get voters to the polls for us.”

Indeed, candidates have been doing at least some snooping for centuries so as to find, court and eventually produce more voters on election day. In the 19th century Abraham Lincoln century traveled to the local court house to view lists of neighbors registered to vote.

Christine Iverson, a spokesman for the RNC says they take “privacy very seriously.” Republican campaign officials insist they only use the information for party activities and do not allow its use for anything else.

“We do not break any laws,” continues Iverson. “There is a lot being done to encourage more people to vote. We intend to register three million new voters” by November. (Of course, if the parties were truly interested in registering large numbers of voters, they would advocate what former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura proposes which is to allow same-day registration and voting.)

The Sword Lacerates Democracy
But this effort to gather information on Americans so as to better market their messages of propaganda goes beyond issues of privacy—it could hinder the democratic process too. Freed from the restrictions that law enforcement agencies typically must obey, with Voter Vault and Demzilla the national parties are segmenting Americans into psychographic databases according to particular behaviors, attitudes and beliefs to more efficiently market their communications by phone, mail or direct contact to seek funds and votes.

"There's a real problem with this," reportedly said Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel at the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center. "With the data tools available, one can send different platforms to different voters and it would be difficult to detect."

And Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in San Diego, reportedly agreed. "Think about the possibilities for abuse, for manipulation democracy suffers when you tailor your message 12 different ways depending on who you want to reach out to," she said. "The data that can be purchased is mind-boggling."

Now with the new science of data mining, part of the field of applied mathematics, knowledge can be obtained by analyzing hidden patterns in the data generated by consumer records, credit reports and networked computers.

With just a few keystrokes, they can quickly obtain information such as virtually all voters in a particular state that have contributed $200 to a party, or the names of individuals who have indicated an interest in gay or lesbian issues. Officials can quickly go right down to the county or precinct level and pull up any person to produce high-quality lists for fund raising, testing and targeting.

With this technology candidates will be more able to tailor their message to only those who vote. Not necessarily senior citizens, for example, but senior citizens who are likely to vote. Concern for big demographic groups such as middle-class hockey moms will be lessened and instead there will be more concern for what they like, what they do, or what they consume. Candidates will see voters individually and not as a group. Television ads that are seen by millions may become less important than smaller advertising ventures.

Candidates will know more about the voters than the voters know about candidates. And since many messages from the candidates will be tailored for individuals and somewhat hidden from the media and the public because it is a personal letter, then who is to know what the politician actually believes? It is a perversion of the political process unless a curious press keeps it in check.

Choosing To Not Vote
Oscar H. Gandy Jr. of the Annenberg School for Communication and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. tells EVOTE.COM this “new technology damages the democratic process. Democracy in the ideal involves all of the people participating equally. This technology focuses in on segments of the population. It differentiates among people. It identifies those who make a financial or political contribution. And since some people are bypassed by the efficient voter-marketing, it leads to those particular individuals stepping-out of the political process and failing to vote. People learn to participate in the democratic process by being contacted. Since they have been ignored, they then ignore the process and there is a snowball effect.”

Gandy has said the decline in voter participation “is undoubtedly the result of a strategy of focusing campaign resources on that segment of ‘likely voters’ that are likely to vote the right way.”

“Orwellian society is here,” said Gandy.

Beyond Voter Vault and Demzilla, Gandy is also concerned that although there are restrictions on what kinds of information the government can gather, there are few if any restrictions on what kind of information it can purchase from private companies. And in this post 9/11 environment with the Patriot Act still on the books, privacy concerns have become more intense as we struggle with the problem of sacrificing some liberties for the apprehension of ideologically motivated terrorists.

And as technology advances with computers and cameras in the future, our privacy may significantly decrease. The watchmen must be watched.

[John Pike is a veteran free-lance journalist based in Boston. His articles have appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers and wire services, including the Boston Globe, Reason and Insight Magazines. Because of his concern for privacy, he is now a nether troglodyte living at a hidden far-away location. Unfortunately he knows they are still watching him.]

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