If you’re a registered voter and surf the web, one of
the sites you visit has almost certainly placed a tiny
piece of data on your computer flagging your political
preferences. That piece of data, called a cookie, marks
you as a Democrat or Republican, when you last voted,
and what contributions you’ve made. It also can include
factors like your estimated income, what you do for a
living, and what you’ve bought at the local mall.
Across the country, companies are using cookies to
tailor the political ads you see online. One of the
firms is CampaignGrid, which boasted in a recent
slideshow, “Internet Users are No Longer Anonymous.” The
slideshow includes an image of the famous New Yorker
cartoon from 1993: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re
a dog.” Next to it, CampaignGrid lists what it can now
know about an Internet user: “Lives in Pennsylvania’s
13th Congressional District, 19002 zip code, Registered
primary voting Republican, High net worth household, Age
50-54, Teenagers in the home, Technology professional,
Interested in politics, Shopping for a car, Planning a
vacation in Puerto Rico.” Interactive Features
The slideshow was online until last week, when the
company removed it after we asked for comment. (Here is
the full slideshow.) Rich Masterson, CampaignGrid’s
chairman, wrote in an email that the slideshow was
posted in error: “It was an unapproved version of a
sales deck that was posted by an intern who no longer
works for the company.”
CampaignGrid does indeed collect 18 different
“attributes” for every voter, Masterson told ProPublica,
including age, gender, political donations, and more.
Campaigns use this data to tailor the online ads you
Online targeting has taken off this campaign season.
ProPublica has identified seven companies that advertise
the ability to help campaigns target specific voters
online. Among them is Experian, the credit reporting
company. Datalogix, a company that works with Facebook
to track users’ buying patterns, is also involved. (Here
are marketing materials and comment from the seven
companies). CampaignGrid and a few, similar firms have
been profiled for their innovative approaches. Yet the
scale of the targeting and the number of companies
involved has received little notice.
Few of the companies involved in the targeting talk
about it publicly. But CampaignGrid, which works with
Republicans, and a similar, Democratic firm, Precision
Network, told ProPublica they have political information
on 150 million American Internet users, or roughly 80
percent of the nation’s registered voters.
The information – stripped of your name or address – is
connected to your computer via a cookie. Targeting firms
say replacing your name with an ID number keeps the
process anonymous and protects users’ privacy.
But privacy experts say that assembling information
about Internet users’ political behavior can be
problematic even if voters’ names aren’t attached.
“A lot of people would consider their political identity
more private than lots of information,” said William
McGeveran, a data privacy expert at the University of
Minnesota Law School. “We make more rules about medical
privacy. We make more rules about financial privacy. So
if you think private political beliefs are in that
category, maybe you’re concerned about having them
treated like your favorite brand of toothpaste.”
Google has stayed away from this kind of targeting. It
classifies political beliefs as “sensitive personal
information,” in the same category as medical
information and religious beliefs.
But other big players have embraced the “political
cookie,” as one company branded it.
As we reported in June, Yahoo and Microsoft sell access
to your registration information for political
targeting. That’s one way CampaignGrid and other
companies find you online. Political targeting firms say
they also work with other websites, but would not name
While campaigns and the firms working with them can buy
reams of data about voters, voters have been left mostly
in the dark.