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I-TEAM: Political campaigns will pay top dollar for your data in election cycles

Published: Nov. 2, 2020 at 4:51 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - As you head to the polls tomorrow, or as your mail-in ballot is counted, data is being collected on you for the next election.

The I-Team found it’s actually kind of creepy -- but in the age where everything we do online is tracked to turn data into sales or cash, is it really all that surprising your data is also being collected to get votes?

Ever wonder why you get certain campaign fliers in your mailbox but your neighbor across the street does not? It’s most likely because you scored higher in a voter database than your neighbor.

So many faces, so many fliers, so little time left, it’s no accident that Rep. Bill Hixon’s flier ended up in the mailbox of our Liz Owens. It turns out, her name is on his list.

“The general election, you really go further than the primary voter,” Hixon said. “You go for someone who you could persuade to vote for you and that is why I was so pleased you got one of my fliers,” Hixon said.

Why does he think that I am a persuadable voter? He bought my data.

So how did they figure out I am a swing voter? Is there a magic formula?

“I didn’t decide how you became a persuadable, but it was a service I subscribe to,” Hixon said.

We got to work to figure out how it works: an algorithm.

Do you never miss an election? You get assigned points. Vote straight ticket? More points.

Data companies collect your voter information for political candidates willing to pay for it. They determine how likely you are to vote and to vote for the candidate who is hiring the services. The higher your score, the more likely you got a flier.

“When you do targetted mailing, you want to mail it to the ones who are going to vote -- especially when you are limited on your resources as far as campaign contributions,” Hixon said.

Hixon says this election he paid extra to target the persuadables -- people who vote across party lines.

“I am spending on two fliers and some Facebook advertising -- somewhere between $10 and $15,000,” Hixon said.

It’s both fascinating but slightly creepy.

“It is, but go Google me or you and put our names in there and see what you find,” Hixon said. “There’s a lot.”

Every Google search, every social media like, every web page view creates data points on each individual voter and we found it’s all for sale.

“What you buy, your credit score, your bank information, where you bank, what you click on, what engages you the most,” said Dr. Craig Albert, an associate professor of political science at Augusta University, said.

Albert is also the graduate director of intelligent and security studies.

“Facebook has access to everything on your computer and phone depending on what apps you allow to have access to,” Albert said.

Which is why you might see a political ad pop up on social media, but your spouse may not.

“Whether or not a particular campaign gets access to that depends on what company they got it through,” Albert said.

The data Hixon showed us only contains data from voter list -- not from social media or Google.

“I picked out to categories that are near and dear to my heart -- the river and the police,” Hixon said.

Targeting voters on key local issues, he hopes, will separate his name and flier from all the rest.

So what is still private? Your voter information – or specific votes cast by a voter is not public. What if you don’t want your data collected online? You have to tell Google to delete your data and change your settings.

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