Nov. 11 2013 05:56 PM

I applied Mozilla's Lightbeam to San Diego mayor candidate websites

The election, as visualized by Lightbeam
Image by Dave Maass

For this week's column, I had a grand plan to give snarky reviews of all the major San Diego mayoral candidates' campaign websites. I was going to crack jokes about how Nathan Fletcher's site isn't as impressive the second time around, how Mike Aguirre's site looks like it was designed in 2005 and how Kevin Faulconer won't win the youth vote with his condescending video contest for "San Diego's millennials." 

But after about five minutes of surfing, I realized there was a much more serious issue to address. None of the major candidates—Faulconer, Fletcher, Aguirre and David Alvarez—have privacy policies on their websites. Each candidate desperately wants your information. They want you to give them your name, your home address, email address, cell phone number and, most importantly, your money—and therefore your credit-card numbers. Yet, they won't disclose to what extent they will share that information with third parties.

Contact lists are profitable commodities, particularly for political marketing firms such as Response Unlimited and eTargetMedia. Allied campaigns will also often share lists with each other to create detailed profiles of voters and donors. The more data they have, the more precisely they can carpet bomb you with direct mail, email spam and robocalls.

Under California's Online Privacy Protection Act, a commercial website that collects identifiable personal data from California residents must publish a privacy policy addressing the types of information it collects from consumers and the third parties with whom it may share the information. Even though campaign websites engage in monetary transactions, they do not seem to be subject to the act. It's a loophole in the law—the sites may not be commercial in themselves, but your data is still ending up in the hands of commercial third parties.

Recently, Mozilla introduced Lightbeam, a tool for Firefox browsers that allows you to analyze and visualize how you're being tracked across the Internet. It's not unlike those black lights CSIs use to scan a hotel room, but instead of revealing semen stains or blood spatter, Lightbeam reveals all the third-party services you're unwittingly connecting to as you surf. 

I turned it on and started browsing the official campaign sites; within minutes, I had connected to almost two-dozen third-party sites. and each connected me to six third parties, while connected me to four—mostly the ubiquitous social-media services it's near impossible to avoid on the Internet, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter. However, Fletcher's site did link to a webtracker called Focal Beam, while Faulconer's site linked me to Capitol Tech Solutions. 

Then I visited, and suddenly the visualization became an ugly, tangled yarn ball of web tracking. Alvarez's website connected me to as many as 16 different third-party sites, including several dubious web-analytics services. 

Hovering next to Alvarez like a shadowy second moon was a site called, which Alvarez connected me to directly when I clicked his "Donate" button. NationBuilder in turn connected to at least 11 third-party sites.

NationBuilder's list of services include building extremely detailed "dynamic profiles" of anyone who engages with the website, matching email addresses to social-media accounts, and then using whatever data they amass—including voter records and geographical information—to customize how potential supporters should be targeted. NationBuilder does have a privacy policy, but it's geared toward the campaign that uses the service, not the supporters whose data is being collected. NationBuilder claims it won't rent or sell identifiable personal information, but it leaves open the possibility that they may unload the data as a "business asset" at some point. 

That's exactly the sort of information Alvarez needs to explain to his supporters. Maybe it's worth amending the law to require campaign websites to post privacy policies, but, in the meantime, responsible candidates should voluntarily disclose this information, just as they have disclosed their calendars and school transcripts. 

In fact, all the mayoral candidates are championing transparency in government, but none are exhibiting transparency with how they use your data.

And that's a problem worth tracking.

Email or follow him on Twitter @Maassive.


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