Intelligence is gathering lots of useful data. Wisdom is employing a firm that can keep it confidential. Last week’s GOP data breach by their contractor, Deep Root Analytics, shows both: a frighteningly intrusive data set containing highly personal information about the vast majority of registered American voters, combined with a shocking lack of responsibility on the part of the Party of Personal Responsibility.
Intelligence is gathering lots of useful data. Wisdom is employing a firm that can keep it protected and confidential. Last week’s GOP data breach by their contractor, Deep Root Analytics, involves a frighteningly intrusive data set containing highly personal information about the vast majority of registered American voters, combined with a shocking lack of responsibility on the part of the Party of Personal Responsibility. They may have the intelligence on us, but certainly not the wisdom.
The Trump campaign didn’t start the fire as far as the Big Data Revolution goes. The Obama campaigns were groundbreaking, as one might expect for a former community organizer. However disorganized and underfunded the Trump campaign began, though, The Donald’s egotistical “anything you can do, I can do better” one-sided game of one-upmanship with the former President extended to the use of big data. Obama’s campaign collected data from phone polls and email fundraisers, but the Trump effort got much more up close and personal (and creepy) with the data scraping.
Information yearns to be free, at least according to early internet users. The way the internet is built and supported, the way to keep everything “free” was to have someone else pay for it. That third party is advertisers, and they became the internet’s real customers. The product they buy is, well, you, or at least your eyeballs.
Companies paying for popular websites, like Google, to deliver ads to you is how many sites can afford interesting content, and the more compelling the content, the more eyeballs and clicks they can provide for their customers. Eventually, not just any eyeballs are good enough. Many advertisers are willing to pay a premium to sites that are able to deliver ads to people who are more likely to buy their products, and that’s why collecting your data is lucrative. Sites like Facebook have become adept at this, often because users, knowingly or unknowingly, provide a flood of personal information for Facebook to sell to …well, anyone, really.
One of those customers is Cambridge Analytica. By creating a fun personality survey and asking the survey-takers for permission to access their Facebook information, Cambridge Analytica was able to put together a database of uncanny associations about Facebook users based not only upon their survey responses, but also all those “Likes” and communities people joined. When the same patterns repeated among thousands of users, it became a useful metric that could be used for good or ill. It was eventually used to target very specific political ads designed to have an outsized effect on potential voters across the country.
While Cambridge Analytica doesn’t seem to be responsible, the intrusive kinds of information they collected and inferred, combined with information already in the public domain (like the names and addresses of registered voters) is what was left unprotected in the GOP data breach. Deep Root Analytics, a GOP contractor, along with other companies associated with the RNC, built an overwhelmingly thorough database with personal data tied to 198 million of the 200 million registered voters in the United States. We’re talking 1.1 terabytes of data about 61% of the U.S. population, kept on a server that didn’t require so much as a password for anyone to access. The GOP data breach is the biggest of its kind, in the country with the most expensive data breaches in the world. (USA! USA! We’re number one!)
Which is scarier, the sheer amount of personal information that a private political club could collect about so many voters, or the way that the GOP data breach potentially exposed all of that sensitive information to anyone who found the right place to look? A class action suit ramping up in Florida on behalf of voters whose data was exposed is concentrating on the alleged mishandling and irresponsibility by the Deep Root Analytics. However, it’s also alarming to consider how crucial voter manipulation was to the Trump campaign, and how collecting the data used to individually manipulate you and me was worth $100 million to the RNC.