Tracking Voters’ Clicks Online to Try to Sway Them

A few weeks ago, Thomas Goddard, a community college student in Santa Clara, Calif., and a devoted supporter of President Obama, clicked on to check out the candidate’s position on abortion.
Then, as he visited other Web sites, he started seeing advertisements asking him to donate to Mitt Romney’s campaign. One mentioned family values, he said, and seemed aimed at someone with more conservative leanings.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Mr. Goddard said. “I’m the opposite of a Romney supporter. But ever since I went to the Romney site, they’ve been following me.”
One of the hallmarks of this campaign is the use of increasingly sophisticated — but not always accurate — data-mining techniques to customize ads for voters based on the digital trails they leave as they visit Internet sites.
It is a practice pioneered by online retailers who work with third-party information resellers to create detailed portraits of consumers, all the better to show them relevant marketing pitches. Mr. Goddard, for example, may have received those Romney ads because of “retargeting” software designed to show people ads for certain sites or products they have previously viewed.
Now, in the election’s final weeks, both presidential campaigns have drastically increased their use of such third-party surveillance engines, according to Evidon, a company that helps businesses and consumers monitor and control third-party tracking software.
Over the month of September, Evidon identified 76 different tracking programs on — two more trackers than it found on Best Buy’s Web site — compared with 53 in May. It found 40 different trackers on last month, compared with 25 in May.
The report provides a rare glimpse into the number of third-party tracking programs that are operating on the campaign Web sites — as many as or more than on some of the most popular retailers’ sites.
The campaigns directly hire some companies, like ad agencies or data management firms, that marry information collected about voters on a campaign site with data about them from other sources. But these entities, in turn, may bring their own software partners to the sites to perform data-mining activities like retargeting voters or tracking the political links they share with their social networks.
Now some consumer advocates say the proliferation of these trackers raises the risk that information about millions of people’s political beliefs could spread to dozens of business-to-business companies whose names many voters have never even heard. There is growing concern that the campaigns or third-party trackers may later use that voter data for purposes the public never imagined, like excluding someone from a job offer based on his or her past political affiliations.
“Is the data going to be sold to marketers or shared with other campaigns?” said Christopher Calabrese, the legislative counsel for privacy-related issues at the American Civil Liberties Union. “We simply don’t know how this information is going to be used in the future and where it is going to end up.”
Evidon offers a free software program called Ghostery that people can use to identify third-party trackers on the sites they visit. On Oct. 18 the program identified 19 different trackers on the Obama Web site and 12 on the Romney site. A reporter contacted 10 for comment.
Among those who responded, Cassie Piercey, a spokeswoman for ValueClick, whose MediaPlex marketing analytics division was identified as operating on the Obama site by Ghostery, said she could not comment on specific clients and referred a reporter to the company’s privacy policy. The policy says that ValueClick may collect information about users — like their Internet Protocol addresses, Web browsing histories, online purchases and searches — that does not involve identifiable information like their names, and that the company may share that data with its clients and marketing partners.
Adam Berke, the president of AdRoll, an advertising and retargeting company identified by Evidon on the Obama site, said the company did not aggregate user data or share it with other clients.
Meanwhile, Nanda Kishore, the chief technology officer of ShareThis, a service found on the Romney site by Ghostery that collects information about the links visitors share with their social networks, said the company collects only “anonymous” information about users and does not share or sell it.
The privacy policies on the campaigns’ Web sites acknowledge that they work with third parties that may collect user data.
Evidon executives said the tracking companies on the campaign sites included services that collect details about people’s online behavior in order to help mold ads to their political concerns; advertising networks that track people’s browsing history to measure the effectiveness of ads; and companies that record user behavior so they can analyze the effectiveness of sites to attract and hold on to Web traffic.
Officials with both campaigns emphasize that such data collection is “anonymous” because third-party companies use code numbers, not real names, to track site visitors.
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