Voter Surveillance

There hasn't been that much written about surveillance and big data being used to manipulate voters. In Data and Goliath, I wrote:

Unique harms can arise from the use of surveillance data in politics. Election politics is very much a type of marketing, and politicians are starting to use personalized marketing's capability to discriminate as a way to track voting patterns and better "sell" a candidate or policy position. Candidates and advocacy groups can create ads and fund-raising appeals targeted to particular categories: people who earn more than $100,000 a year, gun owners, people who have read news articles on one side of a particular issue, unemployed veterans...anything you can think of. They can target outraged ads to one group of people, and thoughtful policy-based ads to another. They can also fine-tune their get-out-the-vote campaigns on Election Day, and more efficiently gerrymander districts between elections. Such use of data will likely have fundamental effects on democracy and voting.

A new research paper looks at the trends:

Abstract: This paper surveys the various voter surveillance practices recently observed in the United States, assesses the extent to which they have been adopted in other democratic countries, and discusses the broad implications for privacy and democracy. Four broad trends are discussed: the move from voter management databases to integrated voter management platforms; the shift from mass-messaging to micro-targeting employing personal data from commercial data brokerage firms; the analysis of social media and the social graph; and the decentralization of data to local campaigns through mobile applications. The de-alignment of the electorate in most Western societies has placed pressures on parties to target voters outside their traditional bases, and to find new, cheaper, and potentially more intrusive, ways to influence their political behavior. This paper builds on previous research to consider the theoretical tensions between concerns for excessive surveillance, and the broad democratic responsibility of parties to mobilize voters and increase political engagement. These issues have been insufficiently studied in the surveillance literature. They are not just confined to the privacy of the individual voter, but relate to broader dynamics in democratic politics.

Posted on November 23, 2015 at 12:03 PM • 33 Comments

Comments

SteveNovember 23, 2015 12:47 PM

This is nothing new. It's been going on for decades. Back in the early 1960s political potboiler novelist Eugene Burdick wrote a book called The 480 about a "computer simulation [used] to classify the American electorate.".

While the book was a work of fiction, the so-called 480 in the title was not. It was an early attempt at slicing and dicing the electorate into socio-economic groups and it is credited, in part, for John F. Kennedy's victory in 1960.

AlanSNovember 23, 2015 1:42 PM

OT @Bruce

I hope you post some material on this blog relating to your recent post on "Policy Repercussions" on Lawfare so that important topic has a proper discussion thread.

John Galt IVNovember 23, 2015 2:17 PM

here are a few sobering words to go with that line of thinking

http://www.salientpartners.com/epsilontheory/
...
The isomorphic network problem was a classic example of something that most computer scientists believed could only be solved with NP-time algorithms. But last week, Laszlo Babai at the University of Chicago announced the existence of an algorithm for this class of problems that is, for all practical purposes, in P-time. Why is this important? Because it is the modern day equivalent of discovering a new continent, one that happens to exist in cyberspace rather than human space. Because it is now by no means clear that there are ANY problems of data science that are inexorably lost in the cosmic fog of NP-time algorithms. Why will this one day change markets forever? Because the ability of computers to analyze and predict (and ultimately shape) the behavior of a complex network comprised of millions of semi-autonomous agents exchanging a set of symbolic chips with each other – The Market – just took a giant step forward. If you thought that humans were a marginalized participant in public capital markets today … if you thought that the casino-fication of markets had reached some sort of natural limit … well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Sigh. Last week was a tough week for the human team. With the loud explosions out of Paris, the illiberal left, the illiberal right, and the illiberal jihadists are now ALL in political ascendancy. And with the quiet announcement out of Chicago, we are oh-so close to the day when no human communication over any network can be shielded or kept private from a machine intelligence. God help us as the two discoveries merge into one.

John Galt IVNovember 23, 2015 2:19 PM


there is an analog in financial markets where prices can be manipulated with the knowledge of how participants will respond. one term of art for this is "running the stops"

http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2015-03-17/big-data-algos-are-singularity-theyre-coming-stock-market-near-you

a more complete analog to the current political situation is one where different financial market participants are shown different historical data and different current pricing, but that is well over the line separating legal and illegal activities. until Wall Street gets it legalized.

it would be helpful if there were a similar line separating protected political speech from candidate lies, but then how would the psychopaths be able to get into office?

WinterNovember 23, 2015 3:04 PM

When parties can retaliate against voters for the opposition, it is the end of democracy.

Clive RobinsonNovember 23, 2015 3:43 PM

@ Winter,

When parties can retaliate against voters for the opposition, it is the end of democracy.

We have seen this "enabled" before in the name of National Socialism, with numbers written in milk on voting papers...

Dr. Robert Mugabe, is known to have used similar methods to identify and marginalize the opposition.

JEB Bush is known to have worked it the other way by de-registering votes at a point in time when they could not re-register in time for an election. And every so often political parties get to redraw voter boundries to their benifit...

Even in democracies that claim --falsely-- the moral high ground the tools to do this are in place if those that hold power want to use them.

But do they need to use them when the voting machines are --advantageously-- broken to their benifit?

Thus one of the first steps to tyranny is finding excuses to deny people the vote, on this score the US has a long and unpleasant history of abuse, yet few ever try to correct it when they hold the power to do so. Which begs the question "Why?"

WNovember 23, 2015 4:32 PM

I've spoken to a U.S. lawmaker about this in person. One of the services he uses is LexisNexis. He mentioned one of the services he pays for is his staff giving LexisNexis a phone number and LexisNexis providing an e-mail address of the owner in return.

I was told that it was prohibitively expensive for him to do this on a large scale for electioneering and was hoping that us at the Hack4Congress civil participation event would come up with something that'd make election campaigning and connecting with voters cheaper. Some of these involved intrusive practices and some didn't.

AnuraNovember 23, 2015 4:42 PM

@Clive Robinson

It's not just denying individuals the right to vote that's the problem, it's controlling how they vote (propaganda), withholding information from the public that would hurt those in power (secrecy), and minimizing the voice of minorities that do vote (gerrymandering). Why is this allowed? Most democracies aren't democracies, they are flawed from a structural level. Plurality voting already marginalizes the voices of minorities, "ruling parties" in both Presidential and Parliamentary systems prevent minor parties from bringing legislation to a vote, and committees are stacked with party loyalists. This means government does not represent the people to begin with, and thus only need to be concerned with mollifying the people, not ensuring that their will is carried out.

VNovember 23, 2015 5:07 PM

@ Clive Robinson
> We have seen this "enabled" before in the name of National Socialism,
> with numbers written in milk on voting papers...

I love the system used in my city; good protections against this.

1) Get in one of a couple lines and sign the registered voters list next to your name. No time stamp is kept of when voted (scramble #1).

1a) Get a slip of paper from an election judge.

2) Get in one of a couple lines and trade in your slip of paper for a ballot. The time it takes you to move to the new line and which line you pick is up to you (scramble #2).

3) Take your paper ballot to one of a bunch of privacy booths and mark your preferred candidate. Take as long as you wish (scramble #3).

4) Slip your ballot into the (one) tabulating machine. The paper ballots are stored --I assume-- in a neat stack but there's a lot of randomization between when you gave your name and when the vote enters the tabulating machine.

In the event of a recount the tally from the paper ballots is what counts, not the electronic tally.

In the event of a machine or power failure the paper ballots can be stored in a cardboard box in plain view of the election judges and the public to be hand counted when the polls close.

Write in candidates fit easily into the scheme, fill in the circle next to a blank line and write in whoever you want.

Large turnout elections are easily handled with a large supply of blank ballots, markers, and clipboards... the tabulating machine can keep up with as many voters as will fit in a school gym. This was tested in my precinct during the first Obama election... the room was packed and things went smoothly.

Identifying marks invalidate a ballot; you're not allowed to sign or number a ballot in any way that could get you paid for voting for the right candidate (or kneecapped for voting for the wrong one.)

Speak into the flowerNovember 23, 2015 6:13 PM

Surveillance data in politics, damn right, works on judges too! The world is turning up the heat on CIA and JSOC crimes against humanity so CIA bitch Gerald Bruce Lee puts on his judge costume and does what Massa Brennan tells him. In this case Brennan instructed Lee to shitcan his honor and integrity and turn the al-Shimari case into a Stepinfetchit minstrel show with some world-class juridical shit-eating, to whit:

1. If the military does it, little fake judges like me have to stay out of it because the constitution says this is a military dictatorship, uh, didn't you read that part?

2. Nobody would say the word torture while they were torturing this wog so I don't know what torture means or what cruel means - or what inhuman means, or degrading, either, or treatment. What is that, anyway? Who knows? I don' know nothin' 'bout torturin' muzzies!

3. CIA wouldn't let us admit that the Convention Against Torture means what it says when we were torturing this wog so even though we admit it all now, torture was temporarily OK then

4. Anyway, I can't decide whether he deserved it.

https://www.justsecurity.org/24024/abu-ghraib-political-question/

With the decision, fake judge Lee also formally changed his personal Motto from "To whom much is given, of him much is required" to, "Mister Brennan, gulp slurp, of course I will swallow your scrumptious wad!"

Dirk PraetNovember 23, 2015 6:18 PM

Fortunately, no amount of voter surveillance and manipulation - however smart - will ever be able to prevent politicians from revealing themselves live on stage as power hungry, corporate owned dumbasses during a public debate.

WNovember 23, 2015 6:20 PM

@Dirk Praet

Not all politicians are like that and that kind of rhetoric makes it more difficult for the good politicians to serve the public as said politicians can't show they have enough public support for common-sense measures.

tyrNovember 23, 2015 6:31 PM


We need to implement the chicken test in politics.

Ask yourself would this candidate be safe to allow
alone with your chickens ?

Sanders is a maybe the rest aren't safe by any measure
of the term.

The Romans invented all of modern politics with every
dirty trick conceivable used to make sure nobody had
a meaningful vote except the chosen few.

@John Galt

Maybe, but I tend to want to see some hard math proof
before any large class of problems is suddenly solved.
That is what peer review is all about.

I'm a lot more concerned with the GIGO effects of quantum
comps in silicon, once they look like they work the level
of skepticism about results doesn't seem high enough to
trust their output on sociology problems. That won't stop
them from generating all kinds of materials which will be
claimed as gospel by the tech illiterates in charge of
running the world. Comes around to proof which leadership
cannot spell and doesn't understand in a rigourous sense.

LanceNovember 23, 2015 6:34 PM

@ V

I love the system used in my city; good protections against this. 1) Get in one of a couple lines and sign the registered voters list next to your name. No time stamp is kept of when voted (scramble #1). 1a) Get a slip of paper from an election judge. 2) Get in one of a couple lines and trade in your slip of paper for a ballot. The time it takes you to move to the new line and which line you pick is up to you (scramble #2). 3) Take your paper ballot to one of a bunch of privacy booths and mark your preferred candidate. Take as long as you wish (scramble #3). 4) Slip your ballot into the (one) tabulating machine. The paper ballots are stored --I assume-- in a neat stack but there's a lot of randomization between when you gave your name and when the vote enters the tabulating machine.

In the US our votes are not "scrambled" to be geographically disperse due to electorates. Unless people are allowed to drive across the country to vote whenever they want, your votes are confined to choke points.

AnuraNovember 23, 2015 6:46 PM

@Dirk Praet

Yeah, but with enough propaganda you end up with situations where the biggest jackass ends up leading in the polls.

Fox News, Limbaugh, Daily Caller, Breitbart, et al: That Donald Trump and Ben Carson are not only gigantic jerks and idiots but also the Republican front runners is your fault; you should be ashamed of yourselves!

ThomasNovember 23, 2015 7:00 PM

@Clive

> Thus one of the first steps to tyranny is finding excuses to deny people the vote,

Hence my support for the much-maligned "compulsory voting(*)" we have Down Under.
As long as it's compulsory to vote TPTB can't make it too unpleasant.
Discouraging people from voting is an effective way of denying them the vote.

(*) It's really "compulsory attendance (with near compulsory purchase from the obligatory sausage-sizzle (**)) 'cos you can always just walk out once you've had your name ticked off)

(**) theunaustralian.net/2015/03/25/greens-call-for-a-ban-on-election-day-sausage-sizzle/

Dirk PraetNovember 23, 2015 8:14 PM

@ Anura

Yeah, but with enough propaganda you end up with situations where the biggest jackass ends up leading in the polls.

Which is inevitable in a system that allows unlimited donations to parties and politicians. Over here, we got rid of that and replaced it with a system in which parties and their politicians receive (limited) tax funded grants and equal time on national TV for their election campaigns.

Parties advocating hate, racism, discrimination or other forms of bigotry can have their funding withdrawn. On top of that, we have quite strict privacy laws that make it impossible to directly target individuals or groups of people by means of information or data acquired through third parties. If I get called on the phone or sent personally addressed (e)mail, I can sue the sender for harassment and invasion of privacy.

For many of us here in Europe, the current US presidential debates look somewhat like a surreal reality show in which all candidates seem hell-bent on outdumbing eachother.

@ W

Not all politicians are like that

That's not what I said. I said that idiots will always reveal themselves to be idiots.

JustinNovember 23, 2015 9:21 PM

@Dirk Praet

For many of us here in Europe, the current US presidential debates look somewhat like a surreal reality show in which all candidates seem hell-bent on outdumbing eachother.

You got that right.

Donald Trump says something stupid every time he opens his mouth, for example, the claim of New Jersey Muslims cheering over 9/11, his plans to register all Muslims in America in a new government database, beating up black protesters and calling them "monkey" and "nigger", etc., etc., not to mention his connections to the Mafia through the casinos he owns with all their drugs, prostitution, and whatnot that goes along with the gambling.

Hillary Clinton and her use of a personal email server for government business, and her relationship with Huma Abedin and her connection with the Muslim Brotherhood / Hamas, and another one of her intimate assistants, Bari Lurie, who married some guy who's a nobody, and their wedding is in the New York Times, but obviously it's no more than a marriage of convenience, because on Twitter, there's not a word about the wedding, and instead she's tweeting about all these gay pride parades she's attending and how "cute" Hillary's underage female supporters are, (which by the way if a man did, his political career would be OVER.)

I've had it with these candidates.

AnuraNovember 23, 2015 9:41 PM

@Justin

Vermin Supreme has filed the paperwork to run for president in 2016, so you can always vote for him. I could go for a free pony, plus I support good oral hygiene (although some criticize him that the chip that monitors your brushing habits and dental reeducation centers go too far, it is necessary; we cannot sit by and watch while cavities cause this great nation to decay).

RossNovember 24, 2015 12:46 AM

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v489/n7415/full/nature11421.html

"Human behaviour is thought to spread through face-to-face social networks, but it is difficult to identify social influence effects in observational studies9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and it is unknown whether online social networks operate in the same way14–19. Here we report results from a randomized controlled trial of political mobilization messages delivered to 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 US congressional elections. The results show that the messages directly influenced political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behaviour of millions of people. Furthermore, the messages not only influenced the users who received them but also the users’ friends, and friends of friends. The effect of social transmission on real-world voting was greater than the direct effect of the messages themselves, and nearly all the transmission occurred between ‘close friends’ who were more likely to have a face-to-face relationship. These results suggest that strong ties are instrumental for spreading both online and real-world behaviour in human social networks."

Air Force funded research at Facebook.

Clive RobinsonNovember 24, 2015 1:35 AM

@ Anura,

It's not just denying individuals the right to vote that's the problem,

Oh I agree that is the next set of problems on the list.

The problem is how do people tell that they are being manipulated etc.

By definition propaganda only works if the majority of people respond to it which usually means it's in effect covert to them.

The usual trick is to give lots of facts but over emphasise some and use that to give biased conclusion / summing up. You do this repeatedly just moving things a little bit at a time. In the end it's the equivalent of "boiling a frog". The frog can jump out of the pan, but won't notice it should do so untill it's way to late to do so.

Thus the best you can do is give people pointers where they can clearly see things are wrong. Thus stage one is getting them to understand simple "voter denial" and why it's wrong, and take it one step at a time. Thus you use the propaganda process in reverse and bring people back to reality little by little.

@ V,

Whilst it helps stop some forms of voter abuse it does not stop all...

@ Thomas,

Many forms of vote rigging have been tried in the past, many have involved "gifts" of one form or another. Which is why in many places they don't allow, lifts to the polling stations, cigarettes / booze / sweets / food / or even hot drinks to be involved in any way. Because they have all been tried one way or another. They don't even allow such items to be sold, because when is something a gift because it's only a nominal not commercial rate payment... Even to the point of having shops etc closed for the day...

All of which makes the usual voting drudge even worse, so less and less people turn up. Which can also work in some politicians favour. If you know voter turnout is normally only 20% of those realy eligible to vote, then you can focus on g-ing up say the pensioners or some other group and ignore the rest of the voters.

I Like the idea of compulsory voting, as long as it has no exceptions (yup even criminals, deserters, the insane / feeble minded). However I have a few conditions as well... The first is the list of voters not be used for any other thing with major criminal penalties for those abusing it. Secondly that there is a box on the top of the paper that says "None of those bellow" and for it to count as a valid vote. If it "wins" then nobody is elected and another vote has to be called in say three months time. Third making the method of calling a vote to remove a politician from post fairly simple. They do at the end of the day "represent us" we should thus be able to keep them under control.

JustinNovember 24, 2015 2:29 AM

@Clive Robinson

If you know voter turnout is normally only 20% of those realy eligible to vote,

Well, for one thing, you have to be 18 to vote, no matter how cute you are...

Dirk PraetNovember 24, 2015 7:43 AM

@ Clive

I Like the idea of compulsory voting

We're one of a few European countries that still have that. Although it's a recurring discussion whether or not to abolish it, I have over the years come to think of it as the most representative system possible. Every Belgian citizen from age 18 and up has the right (and the duty) to vote, the only exception being the mentally ill and persons who have parts of their civil rights suspended due to the exceptional gravity of crimes they have been convicted of.

We can vote blank or invalid. Parties and candidates are forbidden to hand out gifts and other useless trinkets to buy or influence voters. Digging up dirt about other candidates' private life is strictly off limits unless it involves fraud, corruption, conflicts of interest or similar offenses.

Due to the reasonably restrictive nature of election campaign regulations, many politicians have discovered tv game and reality shows as an excellent way to boost their popularity. One of the most popular Flemish politicians is a seriously obese female minister who earned everyone's respect by just being her friendly self and efficiently running her department. Another one rose to fame by being a formidable opponent in a popular quiz show, defeating all other participants week after week, to the point that everybody started thinking the show was rigged.

Sometimes it also blows up in their face, for example when they're perceived as overly arrogant or stupid, have no sense of humour or generally make a fool of themselves by making too much content-devoid noise or trying too hard to be popular.

Which is not to say that everything is hunky dory. The last federal government formation took 136 days (counting from election day), the one before that in 2011 set an absolute world record of no less than 541 days.

Clive RobinsonNovember 24, 2015 11:57 AM

@ Dirk Praet,

Which is not to say that everything is hunky dory. The last federal government formation took 136 days (counting from election day), the one before that in 2011 set an absolute world record of no less than 541 days.

You might find this strange, but I actually think that is a strength not a weekness in a voting system.

After all the "world did not stop", the non political side of government continued, and the politicos had to rethink their positions etc.

I don't live there so can not say if the end result would have been better or worse for the people living in the various areas under local political rule. But sometimes it's best to wait for the right people to get the right ideas than it is to have the right people with the wrong ideas or the wrong people with the right ideas.

albertNovember 24, 2015 12:41 PM

'Voting' is Act IV of the Political Theaters longest running play.
.
I was 'targeted' by Dubyas 2000 campaign. Why? I'm unregistered, and I met the income cutoff. That's my guess. Married, kids, and white might have factored in; I don't know. Got a 8 X 10 signed pic of Dubya and the wife and a letter on offishul White House stationary too. Posted it prominently in the office, much to the chagrin of the two arch-conservatives therein. Envy and jealously aren't becoming in adults. Oh, did I mention that $800 tax refund?

:)

Not to worry, I won't give away Act V.

. .. . .. _ _ _ ....

Dirk PraetNovember 24, 2015 6:15 PM

@ Clive

But sometimes it's best to wait for the right people to get the right ideas than it is to have the right people with the wrong ideas or the wrong people with the right ideas.

I concur. The year and a half we had no government (in practice the previous one taking care of ongoing matters) from an administration point of view was probably also the smoothest, most stable and most efficient way the country had been run for in a very long time.

joshNovember 25, 2015 8:09 AM

@Dirk Praet

For many of us here in Europe, the current US presidential debates look somewhat like a surreal reality show in which all candidates seem hell-bent on outdumbing eachother.

Politicos don't need votes from smart people in order to win an election. The vast majority of us are mediocre at best, and nobody's going to say that smart people are always thinking for your best interest either. Sometimes the better president is the dumb one.

That's not what I said. I said that idiots will always reveal themselves to be idiots.

I'd vote for a good hearted idiot over some smart dude.

Dirk PraetNovember 25, 2015 10:07 AM

@ Josh

I'd vote for a good hearted idiot over some smart dude.

Which is cool. But don't forget that an idiot is just an idiot. Give him power or a gun and he may turn from a harmless idiot into a dangerous idiot.

SteveNovember 25, 2015 3:20 PM

@josh I'd vote for a good hearted idiot over some smart dude.

Hence, the Presidency of George W. Bush. Because people thought they'd like to have a beer with him over that pointy headed intellectual Al Gore.

Thanks, babe.

sigh

AlexNovember 25, 2015 5:47 PM

@ Dirk Praet
"Which is cool. But don't forget that an idiot is just an idiot. Give him power or a gun and he may turn from a harmless idiot into a dangerous idiot."

As you previously posted, the system is set up to function arguably better without politocos because it was designed to be idiot proof. Likewise, we can say it takes a very smart person from the politico position to game it for his/her own interests.

As long as the idiot doesn't do something "very stupid" the system is better off in the hands of someone with the right set of ideology and principles, and preferably someone with the moral ethics to not smoke that "cigar".

SamuelJohnsonNovember 27, 2015 4:15 AM

Household Identifiers and the Irish Irish Electoral Roll

In Ireland about one third of rural addresses are locally ambiguous and the country has remained the only one in the EU not to use postcodes until recently. A few months ago new "postcodes" called Eircodes were rolled out that contain no locality information and which identify individual properties. They will be a gift to data miners and anyone wanting to do household level surveillance and targeted marketing.

So far the take-up of them has been minimal. As they do not permit hand sorting of mail at street level technology is needed to do delivery route planning. Couriers are not using them and nor is the post office, which doesn't need them (already at 98% next day delivery using local knowledge). Use by individuals is officially "optional". The "surprise" result: they are not being used by most people.

The handful of innocent members of the public using them have no idea they are adopting a database key that will facilitate surveillance and data mining with a degree of granularity unmatched in any western democracy. At least one local authority has added these codes to the electoral roll (which may be purchased). The privately-owned consortium responsible for these codes will be encouraging others to follow.

Micro-targeting of political messages is a step closer, along with a lot of other previously impractical profiling and data monetization.

Imagine an election in which the parties know not just where you live, shop, and all externally visible things, but also what you watch on television? New "smart" TVs sold in Ireland record what you watch and send the data in encrypted form to manufacturers -- to facilitate better targeting of adverts. Don't agree? No electronic programme guide for you. These TVs know where you live.

How did these Eircodes come about? A flawed tendering process is the kindest way to put it. The cost and the opportunity cost have been large. They are unfit for purpose unless the purpose, as it sometimes has been in Ireland, is cronyism. (Ireland is a small country in which crony capitalism has been a recurring problem.)

We will need a lawsuit to challenge this and to see proper postcodes, with locality information, introduced. It hasn't happened yet. The best outcome may be a victory, at vast wasted expense, for apathy.

That would be an addition to the track record of government-sponsored innovations that have bombed: Ireland introduced e-voting machines at huge expense some years ago and they have not been and never will be used because of insurmountable objections about their security.

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