It’s 3 AM and you are trying to fall asleep in the lonely darkness of your apartment. All of a sudden, your phone buzzes. As you reach to unlock the screen, you briefly hesitate. Does this guy really think that he can just slide in and expect you to help him out? The frequency and odd timing of these messages have grown exhausting, but he can be very persuasive.
You consider leaving the message unread and unanswered. But there’s also a piece of you that is curious about today’s pick up line. Perhaps it will be like last week’s “If you were looking for a sign, this is it.” Or maybe, this time he’ll be more direct: “Are you ready for a victory?”
Acquiescing to your curiosity, you tap the message.
“Hi! This is Jake from North Carolina Young Adult Votes. We can’t do this without you. Can we count on you to remind 3 friends to vote by Nov. 3?”
You sigh. It’s just another late-night voter text.
We’re less than a week away from what will likely be the most consequential election for our generation. In between incomprehensible debates and milkshake stops, campaign teams are hard at work in their efforts to secure a victory. And while it feels like there is little that can unite us in our current moment, there is one thing we may all agree on: we’re over the incessant text messages and calls from political campaigns.
Like clockwork, these texts just keep rolling in. Even if you’ve already voted. Even if you can’t vote. Even if you’ve never been to the candidate’s website or given a dime to support them. Maybe you’ve never even heard of the candidate.
The voter mobilization effort is no longer resigned to in-person meet-and-greets, especially in an age when it’s irresponsible to host maximally-packed stadiums and auditoriums due to social distancing guidelines. In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, campaigns have turned to data collection tools to optimize their outreach efforts.
Whenever you tag a political campaign in a social media post, fill out a form (like the White House’s complaint forms), or even bring your phone to a political rally, campaign data analytics teams are collecting and sorting your personal data. These analytics teams have become standard following the wild success of the Narwhal data project of President Obama’s 2012 election campaign. This project “link[ed] once completely separate repositories of information so that every fact gathered about a voter [was] available to every arm of the campaign.”
Yet, not all of the data sorted within a campaign’s repository is simply “gathered” from sources like public voter registration databases or the handwritten notes of field organizers. Rather, campaigns actively purchase a “wide range of additional information from consumer data vendors,” otherwise known as “data brokers.”
Data brokers are the shadowy middlemen of the Internet, collecting, aggregating, and eventually selling your data. They dominate a multi-billion dollar industry whose entire value proposition is finding information in the depths of the internet that you may not even know exists. It is highly likely that the email address you haven’t touched since high school, your address from public property records, or your location data from any one of the apps you interact with each day is out there, available for sale.
As our digital world stands right now, there’s not much we can do to stop this cycle of selling and reselling our data. The reality is, right now, our data isn’t even treated as our property. To really make a change, we’ll need comprehensive federal privacy legislation that guarantees critical rights, including the right to have our data deleted and corrected, to give individuals greater autonomy over their data.
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You may be thinking, what’s the big deal? In the context of our election year, the sale of our personal data to political campaigns, at most, just results in an annoying string of texts from random numbers, continuing to urge us to vote long after we’ve (hopefully!) already turned in our absentee ballots. However, redundant text messages are hardly the most dangerous consequences of how data brokers operate with our personal information.
The commoditization of some of the most personal and private details of our lives has serious security implications. Your childhood address or AOL moniker could provide hackers with answers to your bank account’s security questions.
Your phone number or address could be easily acquired by a stalker. Location data from your phone over time can be used to identify your daily routine—where you grab your morning coffee, your favorite late-night takeout spot, and even which part of Blue Zone you prefer to park your car.
And we’ve talked about this before. Protecting our fundamental right to privacy isn’t about you in particular—the single data point that you prefer Vondy to Bella Union coffee doesn’t really give malicious actors much information. But when data brokers are able to aggregate and analyze millions, if not billions and trillions, of individual data points, they’re able to weaponize individual data points to create dangerous surveillance tools.
Certain data brokers have even become suppliers for federal law enforcement, allowing immigration enforcement agencies such as Customs and Border Protection to gain access to location data from everyday apps on your phone, data that they’d usually need a warrant for. The data broker industry that supplies candidates with your contact information has also created a workaround for law enforcement to bypass the Fourth Amendment with a purchase order.
The scariest costumes we see on Halloween can’t even come close to how terrifying data brokers are.
In a world where these unregulated data brokers exist, almost everything about you is for sale. We, as individuals, become mere data points in a big profit game we never elected to play in and have no control over. And, when organizations, like campaigns, purchase data from brokers, they are quietly choosing to overlook a need for consumer protection.
Maybe, just maybe, a certain data broker will give you a chance to see what data is collected about you–they might even give you a chance to have your data removed. But when there are dozens of shadowy brokers harvesting, collecting, and repackaging your data for sale, our power as individuals is effectively neutralized by corporate interests that depend on these “analytics” products.
Data brokers can’t be dealt with by giving everyone a stack of paperwork to fill out, sign, and submit for every single company–we need the federal government to create comprehensive privacy legislation that prevents our data from being misused like this in the first place.
We need to fundamentally retool our impressions of how data is collected, moving from an opt-out model to a model in which you have to opt-in, or affirmatively consent, to having your data shared across platforms and intermediaries. We need to establish critical digital rights: your right to request that your information be corrected or completely wiped off a company’s servers.
Regardless of how data brokers repackage and resell data, it’s still your data.
Honestly, we can’t expect that the customers of data brokers are going to voluntarily stop using treasure troves of information. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are likely to cede the massive advantage of having detailed voter information on hand to run fundraising campaigns and mobilization efforts from the click of a button.
That’s why we need the federal government to step in to provide the privacy protections that neither data brokers nor their customers will.
Until then, those texts will continue to roll in, and even after you’ve blocked one number or angrily texted “STOP” in the hopes of opting out from one texting campaign, others will continue popping up in their place. So next time, when you get a text you’re ready to delete, stop for a moment. Consider how they got your phone number and who else may have it.
Jessica Edelson and Niharika Vattikonda are Trinity juniors. Their column, “on tech,” runs on alternate Thursdays.