If you have a Facebook page then you’ve probably noticed the handful of small, unassuming ads that tend to line the right hand side of the page. If you’ve really paid attention, then you might notice something a little strange: the ads tend to correlate to deals for sites you recently viewed. Facebook uses third-party trackers to monitor your online activity and provide ads that they think might be most relevant to your current situation. Think about it like this: someone who has been searching for phone plans online is more likely to pay attention to a Verizon ad promoting unlimited data than, say, an ad for a furniture warehouse. Companies can use data mining to track your purchasing patterns over time and target products that you will be more likely to buy into.
Sounds harmless, right? Verizon encouraging you to buy their latest data package is not going to mess with your life in any way, but the fact that companies can tailor their products to target you and encourage you to invest in their brand opens the doors to a much larger and much, much scarier topic: registered voter data mining.
Here’s a scenario. You have been a registered voter for the Democratic party for a few years. During those years, you’ve lived in the same place, shopped at local stores, gone to eat at your favorite restaurants, and for the most part your life is very stable. You know it, but here’s the creepy thing: every single company you use on a regular basis knows it too. Every time you swipe your credit or debit card at a store, the bank takes note of where you are and how much you spent. Every time you get online, websites track what you look at and for how long. Phone calls and text messages? Your carrier keeps track of the numbers you called and how long you were on the phone. Individually, these companies can’t do much harm. But put together, these motes of data begin to form a pattern of your behaviors.
Here’s why data mining is so important right now. Political campaigns can hire individual companies like TargetSmart to provide mined information about everyday citizens like you and me. In 2016 alone, the two major parties spent $13 million on data mining. What’s the big deal? Very simply, politicians can make assumptions about unregistered voters who have similar behavioral patterns to you, registered voter. Think about what this means. If you’re a member of the Democratic party and the neighborhood around you has a very similar behavior pattern to yours, then chances are higher that the unregistered voters in your area could be convinced to vote Democratic on November 8th. The Democratic campaign might target your area for billboard or TV ads because they know, based on your online presence, what complete strangers around you are likely to do. The campaigns can play your online presence to their political advantage, and that is some scary big power.