In an effort to identify new potential donors to his campaign, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee to the presidency, has secretly retained the services of Buxton Co. to perform Internet data-mining to sift through the trillions of bits of information captured each day on the online activities of Americans, according to The Associated Press (AP).
Buxton, an analytics firm in Fort Worth, Texas, has performed marketing research for Dick Boyce, Romney’s former Bain & Co. colleague, in the past. The Romney campaign declined to comment on Buxton’s operations on its behalf or the success of the operation. The firm’s chief executive Tom Buxton, confirmed Buxton’s efforts to help Romney’s fund-raising efforts, saying he wants “to be on the winning team.”
According to the AP report, no records of payments to Buxton from Romney’s campaign, the Republican National Committee or a joint fundraising committee were found. It may be that Buxton simply has not yet billed the campaign, but the services may constitute a violation of federal election law, which prohibits the use of corporate money or resources for in-kind contributions to campaigns.
When initially asked about its work for Romney, Buxton also denied that it helped raise money for the RNC, despite a log-in page for campaign contributions that included the letters “RNC”—then removed the letters the next day.
Unlike Obama, Romney’s campaign has maintained secrecy throughout the campaign by closing its fund raisers to the press, and declining to reveal the identify of bundlers, fundraisers who have helped amass much of its money. The Obama campaign does however employ data analysis to fine-tune messages for potential supporters through advertising on Facebook and Twitter, and each campaign’s “app” for Apple iPhone and Android phones has raised privacy concerns. The Obama campaign also declined to comment on its internal fundraising practices.
As a relatively new marketing tool, data-mining can be as innocuous as tracking purchasing habits of men in a given locale for retailers who can then adjust store displays and make decisions about pricing to maximize profits. A basic explanation of how it works on the University of California, Los Angeles, Web site provides the example of “one Midwest grocery chain. . . . [which] discovered that when men bought diapers on Thursdays and Saturdays, they also tended to buy beer. . . . [but] typically did their weekly grocery shopping on Saturdays. . . . The grocery chain could use this newly discovered information in various ways to. . . . move the beer display closer to the diaper display. And, they could make sure beer and diapers were sold at full price on Thursdays.”
Data-mining has however also been used by the National Security Agency (NSA) in its counter-terrorism efforts since authorization under executive order for the practice by the Bush administration in 2002. The highly controversial domestic spying effort authorized monitoring phone calls, Internet activity, including e-mail and online “chat,” text messaging, and other communication involving any party believed by the NSA to be outside the US, even when one party to the communication was in the US.
The domestic spying was discontinued in 2007 when critics asserted that it had been used in an effort to attempt to silence critics of the Bush administration’s handling of several controversial issues during its tenure in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Subsequent to passage of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which relaxed some of the original FISA court requirements, the practice was again employed.
The NSA has since continued operating under the new FISA guidelines, and, in April 2009, officials at the United States Department of Justice acknowledged that the NSA had engaged in “overcollection” of domestic communications in excess of the FISA court’s authority, claiming that the acts were unintentional and had since been rectified. The controversies on the practice remains an open issue to this date.
From shopping for Hershey’s Kisses to surfing for porn, little is unknown about people’s activities in the technology age. As a fund-raising tool, data-mining has an all but Orwellian surveillance capability that has helped build a “war chest” of unprecedented levels in the secretive world of campaign finance.
In a competition where messaging is the key to winning, data-mining not only helps strategists develop the winning message, but also to identify the sources of funds needed to assure that the message will be heard. We do not however need to visit Huxley’s Brave New World, but should perhaps contemplate economist James. K. Galbraith’s The Predator State to better understand the direction that the Republicans especially are taking the nation, and observe the clock as it ticks down to 1984.