May 27 2014 04:10 PM

Looking at privacy, money and sound in politics

Roy Allmond
Roy Allmond
Photo by Roy Allmond

A few months back, as voters were going to the polls in the San Diego special mayoral election, I set out to write a column about all the wacky items I noted on the various candidates' websites. Before I even put down a word, I was derailed by the realization that not a single one of the sites included a privacy policy. This time around, I ran into the reverse problem: I'd planned to preview the June 3 election with a comprehensive examination of privacy in the races but was totally sidetracked by all the weird minutiae. I was also daunted by the novella-length manifest of riders on the 2014 campaign train. Holy Jimmy McMillan, the list is too damn long. 

In the end, I decided to cram it all together. Read, consider, vote. 

Political privacy: To explain why candidates should have privacy policies, I contacted Beth Givens, who leads the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

"Privacy is one of the top public policy issues of our time," she wrote in an email. "A candidate who has a privacy policy shows that he or she is at least aware that privacy is an issue that matters to people. Further, candidates and their campaign teams typically handle a great deal of voters' personal information. Their attention to the security of such information, as well as restricting its use to legitimate purposes, says a great deal about how they will manage personal information when they are in office."

On a positive note, the three top candidates for governor—Jerry Brown, Tim Donnelly and Neel Kashkari—each have policies publicly displayed on their sites. As you move down the ballot, it becomes less common. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his challenger, David Fennell, have them, as does secretary of state candidate Pete Peterson (although it's weak). An earlier draft of SOS candidate Derek Cressman's site also had one, but I couldn't find one on the current iteration. On the local level, district attorney candidate Bob Brewer and City Council candidates Sarah Boot and Mitz Lee each have privacy policies. 

While something is better than nothing, a lot of those policies are boilerplate and vague. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa's, however, really stands out as a thorough, thoughtful document that not only clearly explains what information he collects and how it's used, but also breaks down the technology itself, including cookies, third-party ads, log files and clear GIFs. Although it's a little disappointing to learn that his campaign will share certain personal information about you with "other persons or entities that share common goals or beliefs," at least Issa's honest about it. It's also nice to see that Issa covers election laws that require his campaign to make some personal information (name, employer) public.

I also used Mozilla's Lightbeam tool to examine the number of third parties you connect with when you visit a candidate's website by browsing all of the links in the San Diego County Democratic and Republican parties' endorsements. The Republican slate of candidates across 38 candidate website front pages connected me to 57 third parties; the Democratic slate of 42 sites (which in some cases was just a link to information on a government webpage), connected me to 50 third parties. These numbers varied a little each time I ran the tool, so keep in mind that this isn't wholly scientific. Nevertheless, it's still a pretty significant gap.

Money in politics: The impact of campaign donations remains a hot issue, but this cycle, two candidates are exploring novel ways of leveraging money in their favor.

On May 8, the Federal Election Commission approved Bitcoin—the popular electronic crypto-currency—for political donations. Newsom was prepared and almost immediately added a "Donate Via Bitcoin" button to the very top of his website. I'm a little skeptical of how much that will actually raise, but there are quite a few techies out there sitting on small fortunes and with nowhere to spend it.

Then there's secretary of state candidate Roy Allmond, whose sole campaign advertising strategy seems to be stamping the backs of currency (from $1s to $100s) with his website URL, You can get one at the Dollar Counts store in Sacramento, where you can meet Allmond (and his star-spangled suspenders) most weeknights.

"I figure candidates spend a lot of money on flyers, and they just become waste in a landfill," Allmond says via email. "Voters are not likely to throw my 'flyer' away."

The sound of politics: My biggest props of the election cycle go to Media Arts San Diego for working with the county Registrar of Voters to record audio recitations of each and every one of the candidates' statements in five languages—English, Spanish, Filipino, Vietnamese and Chinese. They're available on Soundcloud, which means a voter can play them one after another like a podcast.  

Dave Maass works for Electronic Frontier Foundation, which deals with electronic-privacy issues, although this piece is not a statement of EFF's position on this matter. 

Email or follow him on Twitter @Maassive.


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