If Internet companies like Google or Facebook mislead users and violate their privacy, they can find themselves in trouble with federal regulators. If government agencies spy on people without the proper authorization, they can get slapped down by a judge. Political campaigns, however, face no such hurdles when it comes to scraping information from private citizens. Instead, they operate in a legal dead zone outside the reach of federal regulators. The Federal Trade Commission regulates commercial privacy issues, but has no jurisdiction over political campaigns. The Federal Election Commission regulates campaigns, but has no privacy regulations.
In recent years, campaigns have become increasingly aggressive in their efforts to build psychological profiles on millions of potential voters. “There are no limits, and there should be,” said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group. “Do you really want the Left or the Right to have a dossier about you to figure out how to manipulate you?”
Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign pioneered methods for collecting information about voters and targeting them with tailored messages. With the help of Silicon Valley tech gurus, his 2012 reelection campaign took that initiative to new heights with its “Project Narwhal,” which fused various databases into a massive pool of information on potential voters.
In the 2016 campaign, it appears that Sen. Ted Cruz is leading the way on sophisticated voter targeting. According to The Guardian, the Texas Republican’s campaign has hired a firm called Cambridge Analytica to harvest information on tens of millions of Facebook users without their permission and then combine it with public records. The campaign’s smartphone app scrapes the phone for additional contacts, The Washington Post reported this week.