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Obama App Showing Nearby Democrats Has Some Concerned About Privacy

A screenshot of the new Obama campaign app.
A screenshot of the new Obama campaign app.

A mobile phone application released by the campaign of President Obama last week has some privacy advocates crying foul.

The app taps publicly available data and allows you see registered Democrats near you. It shows the Democrats' first name, last initial, age and their home address.

The Washington Post reports today that the tool brings canvassers into the future, allowing them to ditch the clipboard and the field office. The paper adds:

"The free app, introduced last week, has drawn the ire of some privacy advocates, who note that anyone — not just legitimate campaign volunteers — can download it. The information is publicly available elsewhere, privacy advocate Shaun Dakin said, but the easy access of the app is still a little creepy.

"'It doesn't make it right just because it's legal,' Dakin said. 'Anybody can get this. There's no way to prevent anyone from downloading this.'

"Others defended the Obama team's right to publish the data. With more information than ever at the fingertips of political campaigns, experts said such initiatives will no doubt proliferate."

Pro-Publica, which first reported the story, notes that in the past canvassers had to stop by a field office and ask for a printed list. The Obama campaign defended their decision to release the app publicly. Pro-Publica reported:

"While the app makes voter information instantly available, it displays only a small cluster of addresses at a time. It has built-in mechanisms to detect when people are misusing the data, 'such as people submitting way too many voter contacts in a short period of time,' the spokesman said.

"'The campaign is strongly committed to ensuring the safety and privacy of the public and follows up with appropriate action, including alerting appropriate authorities if necessary, in any case of abuse or inappropriate behavior,' said the [Obama campaign] spokesperson. 'Any voter who requests not to be contacted again is immediately removed from any [list] provided to volunteers.'"

ITWorld spoke to Shaun Dakin, the CEO of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, who called the app a "total privacy fail."

"There is NO Reason why the app needs to show this information to the public for canvassing purposes," Dakin said. "Now I know the age of my neighbors, I know if they are likely Dems, and there is no way to opt out of being part of the system (as far as I can tell)."

The New York Times previewed the app in late July. They report that volunteers can report the response of the person being canvassed and it is sent electronically to the campaign headquarters.

The campaign said it hoped the app would increase the number of volunteers.

"Our focus remains on helping make grass-roots organizing as easy and accessible as possible for the volunteers and supporters that are the heart and soul of this campaign," Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager for Obama, told the Times. "That's why we designed our new app to help break down the distinction between online and offline organizing."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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