Obama app links Facebook friends to voter lists

White House photo

Much of the information is already publicly available, but some fear it will be abused.

The Obama campaign is looking to increase voter registration and stimulate turnout with an app that lets Facebook users match their social-network contacts with voter files.

A link to the app was distributed on Tuesday night by the official Barack Obama Twitter account. Democratic activists can also access a service called Social Organizing -- from left-leaning elections-technology firm NGP VAN -- to find out which of their Facebook friends are registered by tapping into an extensive voter database that includes basic personal information, turnout history, and responses to survey questions.

Much of this voter information is already publicly available. Shane Hamlin, codirector of elections in Washington state, points out that a CD-ROM of the state’s database of 3.7 million voters is available to anyone who asks and pays $7.

What is different in this election cycle is the volume and depth of information that has now become accessible to campaign volunteers at the touch of a button. The technology has the potential to turn ordinary activists into virtual precinct captains, but there is no guarantee that the data will be used for its intended purpose.

The matching of voter lists to social networks “widely crosses the line,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. She thinks that voter information should be shareable across social-network lists only on an “opt-in” basis to protect the privacy of unregistered voters.

Someone could be a nonvoter for religious reasons or because of a felony conviction they don’t care to disclose to Facebook friends, Coney said. “Being able to monitor whether they do register or not can raise questions they don’t really want to get into trying to answer,” she said.

The matching of social-network lists to voter registrations doesn’t actually occur within Facebook’s system. Volunteers working with the NGP VAN list use their Facebook login to access the Social Organizing interface, said Stuart Trevelyan, head of NGP VAN. His app was highlighted at a Facebook event in Charlotte on Tuesday.

“We’re confident that we abide by Facebook’s terms of service and also abide by privacy rules,” Trevelyan said. The Social Organizing tool allows users to essentially reconstitute their personal networks within the confines of the NGP VAN site and organize them based on their location, registration status, stated political preference, and other factors, in order to contact friends on behalf of Democratic candidates.

“There’s nothing special about having facilitated that with Facebook data that makes it some sort of privacy invasion,” Trevelyan said.

The Obama app functions as a frame within a Facebook page, but the privacy policy indicates that the information flows directly into the campaign site, without going through Facebook. Washington state has an online voter-registration app that works much the same way: It loads within a Facebook frame, but users input their information into an online form provided by the state’s Elections Division, Hamlin said.

Coney is still concerned that the data from these apps could be abused. “When you start putting enough information online about the lives of people in communities, you do start creating some problems,” she said. “What’s going on with modern campaigns is lots of data-mining, lots of data-matching, lots of profiling that’s taking place. If a person is asked repeatedly to register to vote and they don’t register to vote, they’re going to be categorized in a way that may not be great for them in the long run.”