As if you didn’t have enough to worry about when it comes to protecting your personal information from the jackals of the innernets, here, come have more to worry about: Microsoft and Yahoo are selling users’ personal data to political campaigns so that they can better target the audience of their political ads.
Honestly, this news shouldn’t be that surprising since the process of running for any important public office in the United States is, at least in this big social century, nothing more than an aggressive exercise in venture capitalism so why shouldn’t political campaigns get the same perks and access as other enterprises do? It’s probably better to go ahead and accept the fact that elections are less democratic routine and more a corporate charade of cash-stitched hand-puppets so that we can get over our expected outrage at news of tech companies selling our personal information to political parties.
Microsoft and Yahoo are Voltron-ed together in the Search Alliance that allows users of Microsoft’s adCenter or Yahoo Search Marketing to target users across both Yahoo and Bing search engines with personalized ads. According to ProPublica’s Lois Beckett, the two companies are helping political campaigns deploy consumer-tailored ads by using people’s names, zip codes, and other user information that people submit when they sign up to use one of Microsoft or Yahoo’s services. By paying for access to user information, campaigns can strategize how best to target political ads to people browsing the internet the same way other advertisers deploy retail ads to specific people.
And where does your right to privacy fall in all of this? Never thought you’d ask.
Microsoft and Yahoo said they safeguard the privacy of their users and do not share their users’ personal information directly with the campaigns. Both companies also said they do not see the campaigns’ political data, because the match of voter names and registration data is done by a third company. They say the matching is done to target groups of similar voters, and not named individuals.
While the two companies may indeed be going through a third party to ensure the anonymity of users whose information is harvested for political parties, I’d wager that a determined sleuth would not have too much difficulty tracking back the breadcrumbs of data to sniff out a person’s true identity.
In a recent report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that assessed which companies were doing their part to protect user privacy and which were slacking off, both Microsoft and Yahoo received poor scores, especially when it came to teling users about data demands and maintaining transparency about government requests for private information.
What’s supremely ironic about Microsoft selling user information to political campaigns via third-parties is that just last week the company announced that its upcoming Internet Explorer 10 would come with the ‘Do Not Track’ feature automatically enabled, which tells third-party advertisers to get lost but doesn’t shake off those advertisers with whom users have direct interactions, such as Microsoft if you’re using IE10.
Alternately, the two biggest online advertisers, Google and Facebook, told ProPublica that they are not like Microsoft and Yahoo in that they don’t hock personal data to political campaigns. Instead, they sell it off to everybody else.
The Obama and Romney campaigns declined to share their methods for targeting potential voters with ads. The only response the Obama campaign would give up is that this habit of info-buying for the purpose of targeted campaign ads is something both Democrats and Republicans have done in the past, and so since it’s been done before they don’t see a problem with doing it now. Alternately, the Romney campaign just sat on their hands and didn’t say anything.
As I already mentioned, there isn’t any real reason why political campaigns shouldn’t be allowed to target their online ads when retailers are allowed because the end goal is identical: make people pay attention to your brand and hopefully commit to your side. In the end, it’s less about Microsoft and Yahoo failing at online privacy – those companies aren’t exactly doing anything different than how normal advertising goes – and more of a reminder that electioneering really isn’t any different than trying to target somebody with an online ad for green corduroy pants because they looked at a pair yesterday.