NSA Domestic Spying & GOP Election Microtargeting
by FreedomOfThinking, Sun Oct 01, 2006 at 09:39:34 AM EDT
The House passed a bill Friday that would provide congressional authorization for President Bush's warrantless domestic spying program.
Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, charged: "Hidden in the fine print are provisions which grant the administration authority to maintain permanent records on innocent U.S. citizens, granting the administration new authority to demand personal records without court review, and terminating any and all legal challenges to unlawful wiretapping."
Today a staggering amount of personal information is being collected by the government on millions of Americans. This information is being used to compile a massive social network of American citizens that we are told is for the purpose of identifying terrorist cells. But others say it is easy for terrorists to avoid being caught up into this type of data-mining. I find it curious that what may be of little value in uncloaking terrorist cells is precisely the type of data-mining you would dream about for political election microtargeting.
Why have Republicans recently won some close elections by margins that surprised many analysts?
The Republican's had a "get out the vote" (GOTV) advantage. The advantage came from having long lists of Independents and even Democrats who were likely to vote for a Republican candidate this time that were compiled using modern microtargeting techniques. These groups tend to be very difficult to identify for GOTV efforts. But if you can identify them and get them to the polls to vote in a close election, it can make the difference.
They targeted not just Republicans but also independent voters during the final days of the campaign, following a blueprint developed months ago by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Chafee campaign. The effort helped Chafee survive a spirited challenge from Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey by boosting primary turnout to an all-time high.
In June, GOP leaders used a similar turnout program to help lobbyist Brian Bilbray win a special California election for the House seat vacated by indicted GOP Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.
The RNC said its turnout program made 198,921 contacts with voters in the campaign's final 11 days, helping to propel a record turnout nearly 40% larger than the previous high in a Republican primary. "That large influx to the polls 'means there was a bunch of independents who flooded into that primary and they are the ones who saved Chafee," said Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Rhode Island.
Rhode Island's Senate race is a case study on how the GOP can find voters. Lincoln Chafee spent $500,000 on microtargeting techniques, even identifying 42,000 committed Dems who might be tempted.
What is Microtargeting?
Microtargeting uses modern data-mining and data-management to learn about voters. The more personal information you can gather about individual voters the more effective it is. This data is used to identify and target voters for GOTV campaigns tailoring campaign literature with specific messages to match individual voters wants and needs. Neighborhood maps are prepared to direct campaign canvassers to clusters of voters with the right message for each voter that will resonate with you and press all your emotional buttons.
"Microtargeting" is not a political term widely understood by the voters, but it has become a major high-tech weapon in the GOP's voter turnout arsenal that sealed President Bush's re-election and boosted the Republican congressional majority. It has since been upgraded and even perfected into a more powerful, far-reaching tool in the midterm elections, party officials told me.
"The basic idea of microtargeting is that in the past, you might target a fairly aggregated level like a precinct, whereas now people are merging lots of data that's aggregated not at the precinct level, but down at the individual level," he said. "So you are able to find pockets of voters within some aggregate that are especially attractive to persuade or mobilize."
"That's kind of new," Gerber continued. "That isn't how the Democrats or Republicans have traditionally done their targeting, though now they're starting to do it more and more. The Republicans, almost all their targeting, the Democrats are certainly moving in that direction."
What is the best way to identify those hard to find Independent and Democratic voters who are likely to vote Republican this election so lists can be compiled for the GOTV effort?
In a book called The Social Logic of Politics: Personal Networks as Contexts for Political Behavior, edited by Alan S. Zuckerman, the case is made that a voters actual social network, the people they are in regular communication with, may be the most important factor in determining a voters choice. This includes family members, friends, neighbors, and workmates, among others. A voters preference is likely to be the same as the people they are currently in contact with. So if you can identify a social network inclined to vote Republican you may target all the members of that cell. In that way you could identify Republican Voter Cells.
Wouldn't you be able to identify Republican Voter Cells by knowing what groups the voter joined?
It is more complicated than that. Knowing what groups people belong to is not always an accurate way to predict voter preference, especially for Independents or Democrats considering voting for a Republican candidate. People belong to many groups. Tracking a voters every day communication contacts will show which group is currently having the most influence.
Here are some of my notes regarding voter preference and social networks from the above mentioned book:
- An undecided voter will likely vote according to the preference of their social contacts.
- Who a person is communicating with will determine their voter preference more so than formal media exposure.
- People who work and play together are likely to vote for the same candidates.
- Knowing what groups people belong to is not always accurate to predict voter preference. People belong to many groups. Knowing a persons social contacts will show which group is having the most influence.
- Abstract categories like social class, ethnicity, religion, even political party do not define a social group. Analyzing an individual requires knowing about what is affecting the person in real life, such as a persons immediate social circle.
- A person may not have a great deal of detailed information on an election, but he will usually have picked up crucial general information as part of social influence.
- Validity of an opinion depends on what others are saying around him. Members of a social circle tend to produce changes in opinions and attitudes in the direction of establishing uniformity within the group.
- An individuals vote is formed in the midst of their social circle as a sort of group decision.
- If conformity is not achieved people will move out of a social group that does not agree with them into a group that agrees.
What is the best way to map out a voters social network, so that you can uncloak a likely Republican Voter Cell?
The best way to identify a voters social network is to find out who they contact on a regular basis. If it were legal, you would want to track their land line telephone calls, cell phones, internet calls, email, faxes, instant messages, blog contacts, etc. The more data you acquire the more accurate and up to date your Republican voter lists will be. It would not be necessary to know the content of the communication, just the who and when of the contact. With this data a voters social network could be mapped out. You can even identify cell leaders who have the most influence over the group and target them for special treatment. In Sen. Lincoln Chafee's (R-RI) primary victory Chafee himself called more than 100 of those who were identified as being capable of swinging the votes of colleagues and friends.
If the National Security Agency is indeed amassing a colossal database of Americans' phone records, one way to use all that information is in "social network analysis," a data-mining method that aims to expose previously invisible connections among people.
Social network analysis has gained prominence in business and intelligence circles under the belief that it can yield extraordinary insights, such as the fact that people in disparate organizations have common acquaintances. Companies can buy social networking software to help determine who has the best connections for a particular sales pitch.
So it did not surprise many security analysts to learn Thursday from USA Today that the NSA is applying the technology to billions of phone records...
The NSA declined to comment. But several experts said it seemed likely the agency would want to assemble a picture from more than just landline phone records. Other forms of communication, including cell phone calls, e-mails and instant messages, likely are trackable targets as well, at least on international networks if not inside the U.S.
While this type of who's-calling-whom traffic analysis is extremely effective in identifying voter cells, can it also be used to identify terrorist cells?
Unfortunately, it is not effective in identifying terrorists or criminals.
Also, social network analysis would appear to be powerless against criminals and terrorists who rely on a multitude of cell phones, payphones, calling cards and Internet cafes.
And then there are more creative ways of getting off the grid. The Madrid train bombings case has revealed that the plotters communicated by sharing one e-mail account and saving messages to each other as drafts that didn't traverse the Internet like regular mail messages would.
GOP election microtargeting uses data-mining and social network analysis to
uncover Republican Voter Cells
Phone logs have a limited scope. Are there other ways to improve the accuracy of identifying a Republican Voter Cell?
Social networking websites such as MySpace and Friendster are great places to gather personal information about citizens. If you combine phone records of who we have been talking to with all the other personal information about us that can be data-mined the Republican Voter Cell emerges.
Meanwhile, the NSA is pursuing its plans to tap the web, since phone logs have limited scope. They can only be used to build a very basic picture of someone's contact network, a process sometimes called "connecting the dots". Clusters of people in highly connected groups become apparent, as do people with few connections who appear to be the intermediaries between such groups...
By adding online social networking data to its phone analyses, the NSA could connect people at deeper levels, through shared activities, such as taking flying lessons. Typically, online social networking sites ask members to enter details of their immediate and extended circles of friends, whose blogs they might follow. People often list other facets of their personality including political, sexual, entertainment, media and sporting preferences too...
Other data the NSA could combine with social networking details includes information on purchases, where we go (available from cellphone records, which cite the base station a call came from) and what major financial transactions we make, such as buying a house.
There are millions of voters. Who would have the facilities to collect and analyze such a vast amount of personal information on every American?
The government is spending billions in the development of a massive computer system that can collect a huge amount of diverse data on American citizens and "connect the dots" to create a personal social profile and social network for each of us.
"We don't realize that, as we live our lives and make little choices, like buying groceries, buying on Amazon, Googling, we're leaving traces everywhere," says Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We have an attitude that no one will connect all those dots. But these programs are about connecting those dots - analyzing and aggregating them - in a way that we haven't thought about. It's one of the underlying fundamental issues we have yet to come to grips with."
After the social networks are analyzed, and the Republican Voter Cell has been identified, how do you get those invaluable lists of probable Republican voters to the GOTV workers on the ground?
The lists of probable Republican voters are made available to GOTV volunteers and staff through the Republican National Committee (RNC) Voter Vault which is a highly secret data base with personal information on at least 165 million Americans. We don't know if the NSA, or any of the other numerous government spy agencies, or their subcontractors (selected by Republican appointees) share their citizen spy information with the RNC election campaigns, but if they did it would go into the secret Vault. While the microtargeting activity at the Vault is a closely guarded GOP secret, it is easily accessible to ground campaign workers online.
The highly sophisticated Republican data bank, "Voter Vault," not only is tailored to each county - so that it can be used to get out the vote and target likely Republican voters within Democratic precincts - it can be downloaded into a PDA, allowing precinct workers to add information picked up in door-to-door visits.
"We have a numeric coding system," said Washington state Republican Chairman Chris Vance in an interview about the Vault. "One is a hard Republican. Two is a soft Republican. Three is an independent. Four is a soft Democrat. Five is a hard Democrat.
Isn't the use of NSA domestic spy information to win elections illegal?
I'm sure U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has the imagination to come up with a legal argument. But there is not any evidence to date that proves the NSA domestic spy program is sending data to the secret Republican Voter Vault because the Republican controlled congress refuses to fulfill its NSA over-sight responsibility. If you would like congress to investigate the NSA's citizen spy program vote Democrat at the mid-term elections. And make sure others in your Democrat Voter Cell cast a vote also.