Microsoft, Yahoo sell tracking data to political campaigns

June 12th, 2012

Microsoft has issued a response to revelations in this ProPublica investigative story showing how the tech giants have begun cashing in on the hunger of political parties to tailor specific messages to specific voters.

The ability of political campaigns to micro-target voters, via regular mail and robo calls, has been widely documented. But investigative reporter Lois Beckett discloses  how Microsoft and Yahoo are now making targeting possible by amassing, then selling, the digital footprints consumers lay down as they surf the Internet.

Lezli Goheen, vice president of Waggener Edstrom, Microsoft’s corporate issues PR firm, confirmed that the software giant offers targeted advertising services to political campaigns from both parties. “We want to be clear,” Goheen says, “that we use only data that does not personally identify individual consumers to select which online ads are delivered to the user.”

Even so, tracking data routinely gets cross-correlated by numerous parties in the online advertising ecosystem, as LastWatchdog examined in this cover story. There is a danger that political campaigns could use this new capacity to scale up voter suppression efforts and dirty tricks, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

“It’s much more efficient to delivers a message targeted to a specific through an online mechanism,” says Stephens. “It’s much cheaper, too, and can be done in real time. You’re able to react within minutes, and that can provide a significant advantage to any campaign that has this resource available.”

Beckett

By contrast, Beckett reports that Google and Facebook do not offer a political matching service. Beckett spoke to Jules Polonetsky, a former chief privacy Officer at AOL, and now the director of the Future of Privacy Forum, who told her political targeting has grown more aggressive in recent years.

“Polonetsky recalls conversations within the online ad industry about ‘not wanting to do things like targeting users based on donor history’ because ‘all of that was considered far too sensitive and likely to alarm users and set off privacy concerns.’ Today, those barriers have been leapt over with abandon.”

Beckett reports how the political matching is done, where potential voters will see the ads, how people can opt out of being targeted and the responses from the Obama, Romney and major parties about this process.

“Industry experts argue targeted advertising can help campaigns save money by advertising more efficiently, a factor that could level the playing field for smaller campaigns,” adds Beckett. However, “Privacy advocates note that there’s no way to track what messages campaigns are showing to different targeted groups-or whether politicians may be pandering to different voters.”

–Byron Acohido