Democratic senator introduces bill limiting use of voter data by political campaigns

Democratic senator introduces bill limiting use of voter data by political campaigns
© Aaron Schwartz

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a bill on Wednesday that would limit the use of voter data by political campaigns.

The legislation is being touted as the first bill "directly responding to Cambridge Analytica," the 2018 scandal that saw a right-wing political consulting firm use data on millions of American to target pro-Trump messaging at swing voters.

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Feinstein's Voter Privacy Act seeks to give voters more control over the data collected on them by political campaigns and organizations.

Under the legislation, voters would be allowed to access that data, ask political campaigns to delete it and instruct social media platforms like Google and Facebook to stop sharing personal data with those political entities.

The legislation would intervene in the large and growing business around voter data, which campaigns increasingly use to direct their messaging.

"Political candidates and campaigns shouldn’t be able to use private data to manipulate and mislead voters," Feinstein said in a statement. "This bill would help put an end to such actions."

"Today, campaigns are legally able to conduct sophisticated online surveillance of everyone in our country in order to influence individuals based on their unique psychological characteristics," she noted. "This targeted manipulation not only undermines our democracy, it’s a threat to basic individual freedom.”

Cambridge Analytica, a firm that has since closed, improperly obtained the personal information of around 87 million Facebook users during the 2016 presidential race, employing that information to target pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messaging at voters who they determined were undecided.

The Cambridge Analytica controversy set off enormous debate in Washington and globally over the need to regulate and rein in Big Tech's collection of user data.

Feinstein's bill would not apply to information obtained from voter registration databases, which are publicly available. But it would apply to a swath of sensitive data including Social Security numbers, personal property records, biometric information like DNA, browsing history, geolocation data, health information, education data, and more.

The legislation quotes a number of studies that have tracked the boom of voter data in political campaigns.

A 2014 study by researcher Ira Rubinstein, which is cited in the bill text, found political campaigns and organizations are now able to "assemble a vast array of [personally identifiable information] into detailed dossiers on practically every American voter in order to target voters with individualized messages. 

The Voter Privacy Act primarily would put the onus on voters to reach out to the political campaigns or social media companies to request an end to the collection of their information. But it also would require the political campaigns to alert individuals when they obtain any personal information from data brokers, businesses that collect data to sell.