Shortly before Election Day, a Stanford graduate student reported that the campaign Web sites of President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney were “leaking” personal information about their supporters through careless data handling.
Had it been Facebook and Google, a federal investigation might have ensued, and the companies could have suffered significant public relations setbacks and perhaps fines. But the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency most focused on personal privacy, has no jurisdiction over campaigns or political groups.
That is a small example of what privacy advocates say is a big problem with efforts to protect personal information in the United States: The politicians are not guarding the chicken coop. They are the foxes.
Obama’s sophisticated use of Big Data gave him a crucial edge in what, based on popular support alone, should have been a close election. Republicans are desperate to catch up. But it’s not clear who is positioned to protect voters’ rights at a time when politicians from both parties increasingly build their campaigns on the insight that commercial data brokers provide.