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big brother December 29, 2007

Posted by KG in politics, privacy, tech.
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vanity fair profiles aristotle inc. and their political data mining and micro-targeting operation. while it’s tempting to criticize what they do, they offer their services to anyone and they use publicly available information. this should really raise questions about the personal information we choose to divulge and how we manage and protect that information with privacy laws. as more and more information about us gets aggregated online, the possibilities for it being used in ways we didn’t consent to obviously increases. i don’t know if we even realize just how much information about us is floating around in the internet ether right now… (slate with some online privacy tips)

“big brother inc.”:

“What we do is help a campaign run more and more like an effective business,” Phillips says as he types on his laptop, bringing up on a large projection screen the profile of an actual voter in Atlanta, whom we’ll call John Smith.

Phillips hits a button and up pops Smith’s basic information—address, phone number, etc. A click of the mouse brings more personal information—his photograph, his age and occupation, the names of his adult family members, his party affiliation and approximate income. Another click summons the exact amounts of political donations he has made. Phillips clicks once more, and a kind of molecular model appears on-screen, showing every political donor and potentially influential person Smith is linked to, in Atlanta and beyond, with dozens of interlocking nodes. Each node leads to the profile of another voter, about whom Aristotle knows just as much or more.

An example of Aristotle in action: During the 2000 Republican presidential-primary season, Arizona senator John McCain was the media-darling challenger to Texas governor George W. Bush. Bush loyalists in Virginia decided to play hardball, holding the state voter lists hostage, according to a McCain campaign official. Without access to them, McCain couldn’t get the 10,000 signatures he needed to put his name on the state ballot. McCain’s desperate campaign managers called Phillips, who went to work immediately, creating a targeted list of Virginia Republicans known to vote in primaries and cross-referencing that with Aristotle’s files on Internet users in the state. Soon, matching subjects were seeing banner ads on their computer screens urging them to give the senator their signatures. McCain’s name was on the ballot in a matter of days. (It’s worth noting that Bush and McCain were both Aristotle clients in 2000.)

Aristotle can tell its clients more than just the predictable stuff—where you live, your phone number, who lives with you, your birthday, how many children you have. It may also know how much you make, how much your house is worth, what kind of car you drive, what Web sites you visit, and whether you went to college, attend church, own guns, have had a sex change, or have been convicted of a felony or sex crime. It can pry into every corner of your life.

Phillips had studied the Kennedy and Carter campaigns, and he understood just how valuable information on individual voters could be to candidates seeking a competitive edge. So Phillips hired a corps of researchers to comb through records from the Census Bureau, the courts, post offices, you name it, and match the results with the names in his database.

The grunt work paid off, and a new era of campaigning began. In 1984, Aristotle was hired by Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. In 1992, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ross Perot were clients.

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