How campaigns are digitally stalking you

Every time Nella Stevens logs on to her computer, ads for President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney follow her from site to site, dogging her every digital step as if begging for her vote.

“If I go to one site to research or I start Googling his views on things, then for the next day Obama just scrolls across my screen, and the same thing for Romney,” said Stevens, 52, of Charlotte, N.C. “I started noticing it, and it’s very funny after a while. I was like, ‘This is very strange.’ ”

Stevens is an undecided registered voter in a swing state. Both campaigns would love to find that one issue or argument that will finally get to her, and they’re hoping that data collected from her Web browser and mobile devices can help.

Political campaigns are taking advantage of the same data-mining and consumer-profiling techniques that retailers commonly use to customize ads for certain audiences.

“You can say, ‘I want to reach a registered Democrat who has voted in three of the last four elections with an age 30-50, with an income of $50,000-plus and target ads only to people who are registered and exactly in that population,” said Jim Walsh, a senior partner at DSPolitical, an online advertising network that works with Democratic candidates and liberal organizations.

Ad agencies and data management firms say this “microtargeting” gives campaigns more bang for their bucks, and ensures that they reach the right people with messages tailored to their interests. But privacy advocates say they’re alarmed.

“Powerful interests across the political divide are compiling comprehensive digital dossiers on individual citizens,” said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy in Washington. “If this was the FBI or national security agency, there would be a huge uproar.”

Chester worries that politicians who get elected using such technologies will be reluctant to press for greater scrutiny and regulation of data brokers, the companies that compile personal information about consumers and sell it to marketers — or to campaigns.

“This is the way that marketing is done in the 21st century,” Chester said. “ … Campaigns have to use it, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any rules.”

This year, online election advertising is projected to top $160 million, eight times more than the $20 million spent in 2008, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group of media and technology companies.

Walsh’s company, DSPolitical, is just one of many start-ups that sprang up over the past few years to help campaigns deliver finely honed digital ads. Targeted Victory and CampaignGrid, leading firms that work with Republicans, didn’t respond to requests for interviews.

Walsh said DSPolitical partnered with the Democratic database Catalist to match a voter file against 600 million browser cookies, the tiny text files stored on users’ hard drives while visiting websites. A third-party data partner brings together the information from the file and the cookies to identify voter profiles.

Stripped of names, addresses, Social Security numbers and other personal identifying information, the profiles are divided into 42 categories that range from age to gender to voting history to race, Walsh said. DSPolitical’s clients then choose which categories to target with which ads.

“For the first time, candidates can send a message to specific portions of their voters that are specific to what their issues and interests are, to what concerns them, and that is amazing,” Walsh said.

Voter privacy is protected because the files DSPolitical receives from the third party are anonymous, he said.

That depends on one’s definition of anonymous, said Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the author of the book The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth.

“Just because they don’t know your name, if you live online and you are being tagged or categorized or profiled online, what’s the difference if they call me Joe Turow or 43695?” he said.

Most people see their political beliefs and activities as even more private than their shopping or reading habits, he added.

A survey published by Turow and other academics at the University of Pennsylvania in July found that 86 percent of Americans “did not want political advertising tailored to their interests.”

“I have no question that the idea of relevant advertising is not a bad thing necessarily,” Turow said. “ … What I think is problematical is that it’s all done under the hood without people’s true understanding of it, without their giving permission.”

David Helling of The Kansas City Star contributed to this report.