Posts Tagged ‘Campaign Finance
Here in the U.S. we have a long tradition of secret ballots, and we feel like our political preference is generally a private matter unless we choose to reveal it to those with whom we interact. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be more wrong about these assumptions.
I first discovered the ugly truth about our political privacy purely on accident while researching the history of campaign finance laws. I’ve always known that campaigns and political organizations are required to disclose their contributors. What I didn’t know is that the entirety of that disclosed information is public record and easily obtainable by anyone with access to the Internet.
Let me introduce you to one of the most potentially dangerous tools on the Internet: The Federal Election Commission’s financial disclosure database. Curious about the political affiliations of your neighbors? How about the businesses you frequent? Just punch in your zip code and prepare to be shocked. Anyone who has contributed $200 or more will be shown with their name, employer, and you can even click through to the filing form to see their home address.
The danger is not so much the fact that the information is collected, or even that it is made public. The danger is in the level of accessibility. Imagine a world where anyone could open up a “Political Contributors” app on their iPhone and, with GPS technology, call up a summary of contributions by party for each nearby address. Imagine if Yelp included a “political affiliation” tag for each business, or a tally of how many employees contributed to each party.
Federal law currently prohibits the use of disclosure records for commercial purposes or to solicit contributions, but the rules on use are kind of wishy-washy. I see a whole lot of loopholes. Plus, it is not clear to me exactly how the FEC would determine that anybody was breaking the law.
The implications are serious. Politically-motivated vandalism could become commonplace, especially as we trend towards greater political division. Local boycotts could become as easy as logging in to an app on your mobile phone. People could even stage protests at businesses who employ too many contributors to a particular party.
Some will say I’m just being paranoid. I concede the possibility. However, you may recall that theft and vandalism already occurs due to campaign signs. For every one person who displays a sign in their yard, there are probably 5 more who have contributed but don’t want their political ideology plastered on their front door. Imagine if it was in the palm of everyone’s hand.
The technology is much closer than many may realize. Just a few days ago, the Obama campaign released an app that shows you nearby Democrat households. Still think I’m paranoid?
As technology improves, the lines of political privacy will continue to blur. Combine this with a growing push for ever-greater disclosure requirements and we’re headed for a dangerous “brown shirt army” situation.
This is not a partisan topic. This should concern everyone. The technology is in its infancy — we can barely imagine the potential in years to come. Entrenched interests on both sides of the aisle will seek to use it to their own advantage, which will ultimately be detrimental to the privacy and freedoms of all of us.
I used to believe that campaign contribution disclosure was generally a good thing. After all, I like to know who guys like George Soros are supporting. Now I’m not so sure.
During my research, I found that one of this nation’s original campaign finance laws (the Tillman Act) was actually created by a notoriously racist Democrat with the purpose of browbeating anti-slavery Republican corporations. As I thought about it, I realized that our current disclosure laws are right on the cusp of allowing the same type of abuse Tillman envisioned. As technology advances, political privacy is going to continue to disappear, unless disclosure laws are repealed or reformed.
What say you?