Privacy And Politics

December 11, 2012, 7:17 PM GMT+0

One of the emerging stories from the 2012 campaign has been Obama’s success (and Romney’s failure) at data mining and microtargeting. While many pundits have applauded the efficiency and effectiveness of the efforts of the Obama campaign, some political observers have bristled at the privacy implications. Terms such as “creepy” and “stalking” are not uncommon in journalistic accounts on the topic (see, for example, this Mother Jones article). In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “I am not Big Brother,” Obama’s data director defended the use of such campaigning: “You may chafe at how much the online world knows about you, but campaigns don’t know anything more about your online behavior than any retailer, news outlet or savvy blogger.” The point is well-taken, but it also simply raises the broader question about the extent to which the public is concerned about the privacy of all their personal information in today’s hyper-information age.

The data to answer this question were collected in a YouGov survey of 1000 Americans conducted November 27-30, 2012. The survey finds that 61% of respondents are “extremely or very” concerned about the privacy of their personal information, while just 12% are “a little or not at all” concerned. This constitutes a sizeable majority but still represents a decline in privacy concerns since 2010. An identical question on a 2010 YouGov survey found that 73% were “extremely or very” concerned.

At the same time, the survey finds that there is far more concern about the privacy of financial, medical, and social media information than political information. Whereas 51% say they put “a lot” of effort into protecting their financial information, and even 30% put “a lot” of effort into protecting the privacy of their social media interactions, just 13% put similar effort into protecting their political views. A recent Model Politics blog post discusses some of the implications for a loss of political privacy.

The survey also finds that those most concerned about privacy differ in important ways from those who are less concerned. Most notably, conservatives are far more likely to be concerned about privacy than liberals, with 75% of self-identified conservatives saying they are “extremely or very” concerned about the privacy of their personal information compared to 55% of liberals. Similarly, 37% of those identifying as “very conservative” say they do “a lot” to protect the privacy of their political views compared to 12% of the “very liberal.” These ideological differences remain even when accounting for education, income, age and gender, suggesting the differences in privacy concerns likely reflect divergent values rather than divergent demographics.

Thus, while there is little doubt that Republicans will be working to improve their data mining and microtargeting efforts in the next election cycle, they might well face a more difficult task than Democrats in balancing targeting capabilities with the privacy attitudes of those to be targeted.