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Big data poses a threat to democracy

Tech companies have an important role to play in revitalizing democracy.


Ronen Shnidman

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 27, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 7:41 am CDT

Knowledge is power and two recent news stories about the mishandling of voter data by technology providers has placed a spotlight on the threat big data poses to democracy.

The bigger story was the mini-scandal that broke out last month when staffers for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign accessed voter files belonging to Hillary Clinton’s team. A glitch in the data platform run by the Democratic party-affiliated software vendor NGP VAN exposed proprietary campaign data, enabling Sanders’ team to trespass.

The Sanders campaign alleged that it previously had complained to the Democratic National Committee about bugs in software maintained by party affiliated providers since at least October. Meanwhile, DNC chairperson and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign co-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, ordered NGP VAN to deny the Sanders campaign access to their own data until the issue was resolved.

In the age of big data, those that control technological platforms can shut down the political process.  

The Sanders campaign’s outreach to early state primary voters was hampered until it filed a lawsuit against the DNC, their own political party, to restore data access. Sanders’ lawyers estimated that his campaign also lost $600,000 per day in campaign contributions without the use of its data.

In the age of big data, those that control technological platforms can shut down the political process. Wasserman Schultz’s decision to deny data access to the Sanders campaign highlighted the problem with entrusting this power to partisan technology providers.  

It turns out that having people who do not place professionalism as their primary concern in control of these platforms may endanger intra-party democracy. In the case of the DNC, the bad blood that was created has even energized some in the party to call on Wasserman Schultz to resign her post.  

The second major story last month was the data leak of 191 million voter files due to faulty database design.

Some of the files in that case originated with non-partisan elect tech vendor Nationbuilder, although it appears that the data was taken from an unnamed third party. We do not know if people with bad intentions sought to use these voters’ information to commit identity fraud either for financial or political gain. It is possible that someone will try to do so in the future if data security remains lax.

While Nationbuilder may not be directly at fault in this instance, combined with the NGP VAN debacle, it gives the clear impression that current election tech companies are not doing an adequate job of protecting voter and campaign data.

The problem is that until now campaign platforms have not been driven by serious competition to improve their data security and implement best practices in other areas. The ecosystem is so small that most campaigns are not in a position to negotiate control over their data or threaten to terminate contracts for poor performance.

The problem is that until now campaign platforms have not been driven by serious competition to improve their data security. 

Many political observers credit the near data monopoly the Democratic Party has fostered on the political left as a more efficient pooling of resources to create one highly effective campaign tool. But monopolies breed incompetence and disdain for the customer. Competition is needed to encourage companies to achieve excellence.

It’s clear there are benefits to what engineers refer to as planned redundancy. The Republicans were the first to feel the hurt caused by election tech failure when their “get out the vote” web app ORCA crashed on Election Day in 2012. Some activists blamed that crash and the lack of a backup system for depressed voter turnout for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Now, in the 2016 election cycle, the Sanders campaign’s political survival was vulnerable to the whims of a party apparatchik precisely because it had no backup technology provider that could replace NGP VAN on short notice. Had the DNC held its ground, it could have fatally impaired Sanders’ candidacy.

The Republican Party’s slowness to adapt to big data could ironically end up working to its advantage. The party’s lack of an established monopoly service provider and traditional concern for privacy rights make it a better testing ground for competing tech providers. The competition to win over election campaigns and a potentially distrustful voter base should lead to better standards and innovation.

Over 15 years ago, the political scientist Robert Putnam captured the decline of traditional social networks and civic engagement in the United States in his book Bowling Alone. Putnam partially blamed technology for “individualizing” Americans by letting them spend their leisure time alone doing things like watching television instead of becoming engaged in group activities. Today, it’s true that the town square, village green and union hall are no longer major focal points for discussing social and political issues with like-minded folk.

Data scientists, programmers and the tech companies they work for have an important role to play in revitalizing democracy and civic society in the U.S.  

Social media, however, has filled much of that void. People in 21st century America develop social ties without respect to physical space. Today, you are probably more likely to talk frequently about political issues online with someone living in a different town as you are to talk in person with your next door neighbor. Data experts wield power in today’s political process because they can dramatically improve leaders’ ability to engage and organize voters through these social networks.

To deny politicians and campaign organizers access to big data platforms is the 21st century equivalent to kicking them out of churches and social clubs of the last century. Restricting this technology to just one company is like permitting social activists to operate through a state-run church, where the threat of excommunication can be used to silence political opposition. Not protecting voter data used by campaign platforms is like letting a charlatan take over that church to fleece congregants of their money and lead them astray.

To ensure all Americans voices are heard, it is important that there are big data platforms that can help all causes and campaigns regardless of political affiliation and are ready to handle personal data responsibly.

To paraphrase John Aristotle Phillips, the CEO of political data provider Aristotle, “If you don’t control the security of your own data in a campaign, you don’t control your own destiny.”

Data scientists, programmers and the tech companies they work for have an important role to play in revitalizing democracy and civic society in the U.S. But to give less than a handful of people unchallenged control of the political process is inviting abuses of power and negative unintended consequences.

Ronen Shnidman is a technology evangelist at Pipl, a people data company. He received a Masters in Public Policy from Tel Aviv University, where he focused on issues related to open government and the use of smart technology to achieve policy goals. He has also been a paid and volunteer member of several U.S. political campaigns. Follow him on Twitter @TelAvivBerlioz

Illustration via Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Jan 27, 2016, 1:00 am CST