Data about potential voters—who they are, where they are, and how to reach them—is an extremely valuable commodity during an election year. And while the right to a secret ballot is a cornerstone of the democratic process, your personal information is gathered, used, and sold along the way. It's not possible to fully shield yourself from all this data processing, but you can take steps to at least minimize and understand it.

Political campaigns use the same invasive tricks that behavioral ads do—pulling in data from a variety of sources online to create a profile—so they can target you. Your digital trail is a critical tool for campaigns, but the process starts in the real world, where longstanding techniques to collect data about you can be useful indicators of how you'll vote. This starts with voter records.

Your IRL Voting Trail Is Still Valuable

Politicians have long had access to public data, like voter registration, party registration, address, and participation information (whether or not a voter voted, not who they voted for). Online access to such records has made them easier to get in some states, with unintended consequences, like doxing.

Campaigns can purchase this voter information from most states. These records provide a rough idea of whether that person will vote or not, and—if they're registered to a particular party—who they might lean toward voting for. Campaigns use this to put every voter into broad categories, like "supporter," "non-supporter," or "undecided." Campaigns gather such information at in-person events, too, like door-knocking and rallies, where you might sign up for emails or phone calls.

Campaigns also share information about you with other campaigns, so if you register with a candidate one year, it's likely that information goes to another in the future. For example, the website for Adam’s Schiff’s campaign to serve as U.S. Senator from California has a privacy policy with this line under “Sharing of Information”:

With organizations, candidates, campaigns, groups, or causes that we believe have similar political viewpoints, principles, or objectives or share similar goals and with organizations that facilitate communications and information sharing among such groups

Similar language can be found on other campaign sites, including those for Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz. These candidate lists are valuable, and are often shared within the national party. In 2017, the Hillary Clinton campaign gave its email list to the Democratic National Committee, a contribution valued at $3.5 million.

If you live in a state with citizen initiative ballot measures, data collected from signature sheets might be shared or used as well. Signing a petition doesn't necessarily mean you support the proposed ballot measure—it's just saying you think it deserves to be put on the ballot. But in most states, these signature pages will remain a part of the public record, and the information you provide may get used for mailings or other targeted political ads. 

How Those Voter Records, and Much More, Lead to Targeted Digital Ads

All that real world information is just one part of the puzzle these days. Political campaigns tap into the same intrusive adtech tracking systems used to deliver online behavioral ads. We saw a glimpse into how this worked after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the system has only grown since then.

Specific details are often a mystery, as a political advertising profile may be created by combining disparate information—from consumer scoring data brokers like Acxiom or Experian, smartphone data, and publicly available voter information—into a jumble of data points that’s often hard to trace in any meaningful way. A simplified version of the whole process might go something like this:

  1. A campaign starts with its voter list, which includes names, addresses, and party affiliation. It may have purchased this from the state or its own national committee, or collected some of it for itself through a website or app.
  2. The campaign then turns to a data broker to enhance this list with consumer information. The data broker combines the voter list with its own data, then creates a behavioral profile using inferences based on your shopping, hobbies, demographics, and more. The campaign looks this all over, then chooses some categories of people it thinks will be receptive to its messages in its various targeted ads.
  3. Finally, the campaign turns to an ad targeting company to get the ad on your device. Some ad companies might use an IP address to target the ad to you. As The Markup revealed, other companies might target you based on your phone's location, which is particularly useful in reaching voters not in the campaign's files. 

In 2020, Open Secrets found political groups paid 37 different data brokers at least $23 million for access to services or data. These data brokers collect information from browser cookies, web beacons, mobile phones, social media platforms, and more. They found that some companies specialize in more general data, while others, like i360, TargetSmart, and Grassroots Analytics, focus on data useful to campaigns or advocacy.

screenshot of spreadsheet with categories, "Qanon, Rightwing Militias, Right to Repair, Inflation Fault, Electric Vehicle Buyer, Climate Change, and Amazon Worker Treatment"

A sample of some categories and inferences in a political data broker file that we received through a CCPA request shows the wide variety of assumptions these companies may make.

These political data brokers make a lot of promises to campaigns. TargetSmart claims to have 171 million highly accurate cell phone numbers, and i360 claims to have data on 220 million voters. They also tend to offer specialized campaign categories that go beyond the offerings of consumer-focused data brokers. Check out data broker L2’s “National Models & Predictive Analytics” page, which breaks down interests, demographics, and political ideology—including details like "Voter Fraud Belief," and "Ukraine Continue." The New York Times demonstrated a particularly novel approach to these sorts of profiles where a voter analytics firm created a “Covid concern score” by analyzing cell phone location, then ranked people based on travel patterns during the pandemic.

Some of these companies target based on location data. For example, El Toro claims to have once “identified over 130,000 IP-matched voter homes that met the client’s targeting criteria. El Toro served banner and video advertisements up to 3 times per day, per voter household – across all devices within the home.”

That “all devices within the home” claim may prove important in the coming elections: as streaming video services integrate more ad-based subscription tiers, that likely means more political ads this year. One company, AdImpact, projects $1.3 billion in political ad spending on “connected television” ads in 2024. This may be driven in part by the move away from tracking cookies, which makes web browsing data less appealing.

In the case of connected televisions, ads can also integrate data based on what you've watched, using information collected through automated content recognition (ACR). Streaming device maker and service provider Roku's pitch to potential political advertisers is straightforward: “there’s an opportunity for campaigns to use their own data like never before, for instance to reach households in a particular district where they need to get out the vote.” Roku claims to have at least 80 million users. As a platform for televisions and “streaming sticks,” and especially if you opted into ACR (we’ll detail how to check below), Roku can collect and use a lot of your viewing data ranging from apps, to broadcast TV, or even to video games.

This is vastly different from traditional broadcast TV ads, which might be targeted broadly based on a city or state, and the show being aired. Now, a campaign can target an ad at one household, but not their neighbor, even if they're watching the same show. Of the main streaming companies, only Amazon and Netflix don’t accept political ads.

Finally, there are Facebook and Google, two companies that have amassed a mountain of data points about all their users, and which allow campaigns to target based on some of those factors. According to at least one report, political ad spending on Google (mostly through YouTube) is projected to be $552 million, while Facebook is projected at $568 million. Unlike the data brokers discussed above, most of what you see on Facebook and Google is derived from the data collected by the company from its users. This may make it easier to understand why you’re seeing a political ad, for example, if you follow or view content from a specific politician or party, or about a specific political topic.

What You Can Do to Protect Your Privacy

Managing the flow of all this data might feel impossible, but you can take a few important steps to minimize what’s out there. The chances you’ll catch everything is low, but minimizing what is accessible is still a privacy win.

Install Privacy Badger
Considering how much data is collected just from your day-to-day web browsing, it’s a good idea to protect that first. The simplest way to do so is with our own tracking blocker extension, Privacy Badger.

Disable Your Phone Advertising ID and Audit Your Location Settings
Your phone has an ad identifier that makes it simple for advertisers to track and collate everything you do. Thankfully, you can make this much harder for those advertisers by disabling it:

  • On iPhone: Head into Settings > Privacy & Security > Tracking, and make sure “Allow Apps to Request to Track” is disabled. 
  • On Android: Open Settings > Security & Privacy > Privacy > Ads, and select “Delete advertising ID.”

Similarly, as noted above, your location is a valuable asset for campaigns. They can collect your location through data brokers, which usually get it from otherwise unaffiliated apps. This is why it's a good idea to limit what sorts of apps have access to your location:

  • On iPhone: open Settings > Privacy & Security > Location Services, and disable access for any apps that do not need it. You can also set location for only "While using," for certain apps where it's helpful, but unnecessary to track you all the time. Also, consider disabling "Precise Location" for any apps that don't need your exact location (for example, your GPS navigation app needs precise location, but no weather app does).
  • On Android: Open Settings > Location > App location permissions, and confirm that no apps are accessing your location that you don't want to. As with iOS, you can set it to "Allow only while using the app," for apps that don't need it all the time, and disable "Use precise location," for any apps that don't need exact location access.

Opt Out of Tracking on Your TV or Streaming Device, and Any Video Streaming Service
Nearly every brand of TV is connected to the internet these days. Consumer Reports has a guide for disabling what you can on most popular TVs and software platforms. If you use an Apple TV, you can disable the ad identifier following the exact same directions as on your phone.

Since the passage of a number of state privacy laws, streaming services, like other sites, have offered a way for users to opt out of the sale of their info. Many have extended this right outside of states that require it. You'll need to be logged into your streaming service account to take action on most of these, but TechHive has a list of opt out links for popular streaming services to get you started. Select the "Right to Opt Out" option, when offered.

Don't Click on Links in (or Respond to) Political Text Messages
You've likely been receiving political texts for much of the past year, and that's not going to let up until election day. It is increasingly difficult to decipher whether they're legitimate or spam, and with links that often use a URL shortener or odd looking domains, it's best not to click them. If there's a campaign you want to donate to, head directly to the site of the candidate or ballot sponsor.

Create an Alternate Email and Phone Number for Campaign Stuff
If you want to keep updated on campaign or ballot initiatives, consider setting up an email specifically for that, and nothing else. Since a phone number is also often required, it's a good idea to set up a secondary phone number for these same purposes (you can do so for free through services like Google Voice).

Keep an Eye Out for Deceptive Check Boxes
Speaking of signing up for updates, be mindful of when you don't intend to sign up for emails. Campaigns might use pre-selected options for everything from donation amounts to signing up for a newsletter. So, when you sign up with any campaign, keep an eye on any options you might not intend to opt into.

Mind Your Social Media
Now's a great time to take any sort of "privacy checkup" available on whatever social media platforms you use to help minimize any accidental data sharing. Even though you can't completely opt out of behavioral advertising on Facebook, review your ad preferences and opt out whatever you can. Also be sure to disable access to off-site activity. You should also opt out of personalized ads on Google's services. You cannot disable behavioral ads on TikTok, but the company doesn't allow political ads.

If you're curious to learn more about why you're seeing an ad to begin with, on Facebook you can always click the three-dot icon on an ad, then click "Why am I seeing this ad?" to learn more. For ads on YouTube, you can click the "More" button and then "About this advertiser" to see some information about who placed the ad. Anywhere else you see a Google ad you can click the "Adchoices" button and then "Why this ad?"

You shouldn't need to spend an afternoon jumping through opt out hoops and tweaking privacy settings on every device you own just so you're not bombarded with highly targeted ads. That’s why EFF supports comprehensive consumer data privacy legislation, including a ban on online behavioral ads.

Democracy works because we participate, and you should be able to do so without sacrificing your privacy. 

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