Obama was able to collect and use personal data largely free of the restrictions that govern similar efforts by private companies. Neither the Federal Trade Commission, which has investigated the handling of personal data by Google, Facebook and other companies, nor the Federal Election Commission has jurisdiction over how campaigns use such information, officials at those agencies say.
Privacy advocates say the opportunity for abuse — by Obama, Romney or any other politician’s campaign — is serious, as is the danger of hackers stealing the data. Voters who willingly gave campaigns such information may not have understood that it would be passed on to the party or other candidates, even though disclosures on Web sites and Facebook apps warn of that possibility.
Chris Soghoian, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former FTC technologist, said voters should worry that the interests of politicians and commercial data brokers have aligned, making legal restrictions of data collection less likely.
“They’re going to be loath to regulate those companies if they are relying on them to target voters,” he said.
Slaby said the campaign took great care with the data it collected and will ensure that whoever takes it over will protect it. Such efforts, though, take unusual resources, he said. Building the campaign’s technological systems took nearly two years and, at their peak, involved about 120 paid employees working with data provided by hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Republicans once held the edge in using technology to identify and motivate voters. After Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) lost to President George W. Bush in 2004, Democrats invested in building better voter lists and developing a new generation of political operatives skilled in the science of persuasion and motivation.
Although Obama’s 2008 election was hailed for its technological advances, campaign officials acknowledge that the operation fell far short of its hype.
With the benefit of four years of lead time, the campaign was determined to make better use of increasingly sophisticated technology. Driving this was Obama’s data-minded campaign manager, Jim Messina. Among his mentors was Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who was a regular visitor to what many have said resembled an Internet start-up company within the Chicago campaign headquarters.
The campaign invested heavily in engineers and technologists, including many who had never worked in politics, and used Amazon Web Services to host the voter database on its cloud servers. The key was a program the campaign built — called Narwhal after a predatory whale whose single tusk makes it look a bit like a fat, finned unicorn — that consolidated lists of voters and donors, often collected over years by state party officials and campaigns.
Narwhal allowed related pieces of software, such as those used by field organizers and call center workers, to draw on the information in the voter database and continually update it.
Slaby and others from the campaign said that although it relied on detailed analyses of cable television viewing habits and Web traffic, personal information from those sources was made anonymous and did not flow back into the voter database.
The most important information, officials said, was provided by voters themselves whenever they had contact with the campaign, in person or online, enriching the database with e-mail addresses, cellphone numbers and, crucially, information about what issues most concerned them.
This allowed the campaign’s analysts to test the effectiveness of messages aimed at narrow demographic slices — single women in their 30s worried about health care, for example. Although it was often described as “micro-targeting,” Slaby said the most important element was what he called “micro-listening.”
“If people tell us they’re interested in cats, we probably took that down,” he said.