Playing “What If”: A political privacy scandal

Successes of the past five or six years have made online grassroots outreach an absolute necessity for any serious campaign for major office.  And every day, the possibilities for online activism multiply in seemingly exponential rates.  The art of the online possible has grown from a framed wall painting into the Sistine Chapel, and the smart campaigns kept up.

Sadly, that’s probably where the problems will come from.

Consider mashups like Checkin Mania – a site that merges information various location-based networks and Google Maps.   Sites which merge data from various sources are popular with users because they can consolidate information – in this case, it helps you find your friends,  even if one is using Gowalla and another is using Foursquare.  The next “revolutionary” campaign will likely have components like this; when you sign up for Obama/Biden 2012 (or Pawlenty 2012, or Romney 2012, or Zombie Reagan 2012) you would have the ability to link other services as well.  In fact, you might even be able to sign up with Facebook Connect, immediately linking your Facebook profile and all other information that you reveal somewhat publicly.

Now, here’s where the what-ifs get interesting.

This means there will be lots of information flowing around not only the campaign site, but to and from several interconnected sites.  Leaks and mistakes are inevitable, and not from hackers – from random items being posted to networks the user did not intend to post them to.  It may mean embarrassing Facebook pictures being shared on the campaign site; it may means your meeting at the bondage club gets tweeted to your Twitter following.

Sound too far-fetched?  Facebook gets knocked for privacy violations every few months – most recently for an information-sharing in their privacy policyGoogle  Buzz was famously lazy about privacy considerations in its rollout.  And they optimize user experiences in social networks for a living, that’s how they earn their food money.

These mistakes come from innovation – designers trying to come up with ways to make the sites and services they offer easier.  Campaign tech teams worth their salt do the same – the lower the barrier to entry, the more supporters you can attract.

When you have a political team that – like Facebook’s development group – gets starry-eyed while looking at the art of the possible, some details on that fresco are bound to be missed.  When they are, the opposing campaign will be ready to pounce.

This isn’t to say campaigns should stop innovating.  But the “what if” game is an important part of innovating in the high stakes environment of political campaigns.  Privacy is becoming an ever more important issue on the web.  If companies like Google and Facebook have to be ready for these concerns, campaigns must be ready as well.

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