GOP peers into voters' data with CD

In this draft version of a package for the CD lobbying for a definition of marriage amendment, the word "interactive" is used to inform the public that user data is being collected and transmitted to the Republican Party.
Courtesy of the Republican Party of Minnesota

The GOP says they intend to send thousands of the CD-roms to a wide array voters who may be concerned about the issue of gay marriage. The compact discs contain video clips from four of Minnesota's top elected officials. They talk about the cultural dangers of gay marriage, activist judges and why an amendment is needed to keep marriage between one man and one woman...

Republican Party Chair Ron Carey said the video is an attempt to get the DFL Senate to vote on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between one man and one woman. At the CD's unveiling, he never mentioned that the party is also using the video to collect information about those who view the video.

Here's how it works:

Mark Drake
Mark Drake, spokesman for the Republican Party of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

To watch the video, a person has to log onto the Internet and punch in an identity code that tells the party who is watching the video. Once the video is going, viewers are asked questions on certain subjects like abortion, the Second Amendment and their party preference.

Party officials distributed test copies of the CDs to the media and have been open with the technology. They were no disclaimers that the data was being collected and transmitted.

Mark Drake, with the Minnesota Republican Party, says information provided through the CD will be sent to a server and will be used by the parties.

Initially Drake said people who were going to receive the CD should assume the data is being collected because the video is sent by the GOP, is interactive and that the viewer has to provide their personal information. He says the CD packets will now specify that the Republican Party is collecting certain information.

Any time the consumer is providing information to an entity and they're not aware of how that information is being used or what purpose the information may be put to, they're at a disadvantage.

Political parties and candidates spend a lot of time and money collecting voter information especially since Minnesota doesn't require voters to declare a political party. The groups used to collect the data with good old-fashioned shoe leather and a clipboard or by paying for subscriber lists. Drake says the CD-ROM is the latest way to collect the information.

"It's an ageless part of American politics and I don't think it's anything that is particularly a big deal beyond that it's high tech. It's not different than 30 years ago filling out a voter survey in your kitchen and then mailing it in," he said.

Drake also pointed to Internet surveys by the DFL Party and Education Minnesota as similar examples.

But some privacy advocates disagree. They argue that someone who submits a survey on those sites is actively providing information. It's not clear on the Republican CD that the data is being transmitted back to the Republicans, or even what other data about the user is being extracted and sent.

Lillie Coney, the associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, says the GOP CD should clearly indicate that the packet is not only a video on gay marriage, but a tool to collect voter data.

"Any time the consumer is providing information to an entity and they're not aware of how that information is being used or what purpose the information may be put to, they're at a disadvantage," according to Coney. "It's easier to tell people what's going on. It makes for better relations."

Coney also says she has concerns that the data could be accessed by a third party.

International Falls based CH Consulting is the company that produced the video for the GOP. Christa Heibel, the CEO of the company, says specific firewalls have been added to ensure that the voter information is protected. That was after Minnesota Public Radio was able to access some of the data that was collected during testing.

She also says the public should know through the CD's packaging and by other means that voters will be sharing information with the Republican Party.

"The packaging specifically uses the word 'interactive', the presentation after each of the questions that we are asking uses the words 'submit' and 'continue' and I think the party has been very upfront about the fact that they are obviously asking for this information to receive that data back and they care about what the voter has to say."

Reaction to the CD has created quite a stir on blogs, Internet message boards and in the state Capitol.

DFL Sen. Steve Kelley of Hopkins, a candidate for governor, is also one of the leaders on technology issues at the Capitol. Kelley, who issued a statement warning consumers about the CD, says the public should be cautious whenever they are asked to submit information to a third party.

"I think with this CD, for example, in order to make sure that their privacy is protected, the best solution is to throw it in the trash can," Kelley said.

Kelley is one of the author of the state's Internet privacy laws in 2001 with then representative Tim Pawlenty. That law prevents Internet Service Providers from collecting personal information but didn't prevent third parties from collecting it.