Political organizations have always been hungry for your name, address, phone number and demographic info. Now, they are also interested in your Facebook information, including your list of friends. They want to know your mobile device ID, your mobile number and your carrier. They would like access to your call logs and GPS and cell tower location data, too.
As reported by John E. Dunn at Techworld, the IT security firm GFI Software recently looked into apps deployed by both the Obama and Romney campaigns and found that both collect a wide array of data from registered users. The report does not detail how the organizations use the data, nor does it imply that any of the data is being collected illegally or surreptitiously, but it emphasizes that users won’t know the extent of data collection unless they read the lengthy and complex terms of the service agreement.
The Obama campaign is reportedly using its app for canvassing in swing states while the Romney organization is using its app to promote the vice-presidential candidacy of Paul Ryan.
The example of these two apps demonstrates the emergence of yet another digital literacy that we need to add to our list of Literacy 2.0 skills.
Political digital literacy includes not only the savvy to understand what information is being collected but also the critical thinking skills to understand how politicians and their organizations are using the technology to influence us, our friends and our neighbors.
In the analog days of yore, if a political organization called your home it could glean only that you answered the phone at the listed address of your number and related demographic information about your neighborhood. Any other information would have to be divulged willingly and knowingly to the caller.
When you engage in the political process using social media and mobile apps, the political organization potentially knows where you are at that very moment. It might learn how many friends you have on Facebook, possibly your likes and dislikes, maybe some intelligence on where you shop, what you buy, where you travel, what you do for entertainment and where you worship. What’s more, depending on what you have agreed to in the app terms and what information you make available on the social web, it might be able to reach out to your friends and relatives.
Once an organization has your information in its database it can cross-reference you to other databases it owns or rents. From there it could be possible to identify your social and political leanings as well as the types of people you consort with and what sort of political pitch might influence you most.
Paranoia? Hardly. Political organizations already have the tools to accomplish all of that. All they need is your data and your tacit permission to use it.
Does that mean we should become as anonymous as possible — nameless, faceless, placeless? Not very practical, and likely impossible for anyone except a CIA spy.
But it does mean we need to develop the skills and the attributes for discerning what political digital tools are doing behind the scenes and what the people behind the technology want from us.
Like other existing and emerging digital literacies, political digital literacy requires the ability to evaluate what the technology is doing and why. It requires a proactive approach to parceling out personal information.
New digital technologies, and mobile apps in particular, are already revolutionizing the political process. They have the potential to make it more open, fair and inclusive. But this is uncharted territory. Even the professional influence shapers aren’t sure yet how to use the tools to further their ends.
At this point, the only thing we voters can do is participate in the political process with digital and analog eyes wide open.
And may the best app win.