A marketing firm hired by the Republican National Committee left a collection of spreadsheets containing information on 200 million Americans – two-thirds of the country and all registered voters – on a publicly accessible Amazon cloud server for months with no protection whatsoever.
The spreadsheets, which contained private information ranging from addresses and phone numbers to political affiliations, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and individual stances on political issues, offered the RNC the ability to profile members and even predict their behavior in certain situations. Security research company UpGuard, who found the information, called it a “data warehouse” that was “used to power Donald Trump’s presidential victory.” Deep Root Analytics, the marketing firm responsible for the security lapse, has apologized.
Since the spreadsheets were publicly accessible, that means it is a very safe bet that your information has been viewed, collected, and sold by a variety of people, from individual hackers to state-level actors.
For many, the news that their information is compromised again barely registers a blip on their threat radar. There is a certain type of crisis fatigue, so to speak, that occurs when people get inundated with incident after incident; somewhat like how people become desensitized to violence or gratuitous sex in entertainment. After a while, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore. It’s all out there anyway, the argument goes. A person may feel like their political beliefs are already publicly available on social media, so what’s the big deal?
The big deal, in a word, is profiling.
For an analyst like me, being handed a treasure trove of this type of data is pure gold. Show me what’s important to someone, and I can tell you how to manipulate them. What can I do then? Anything I want. From an individual level, here’s a short – and in no way complete – list of things I could do with individual names on that list:
- Cross-check it against specific employers: defense contractors, government, sensitive industries. Those people could be vulnerable to approach.
- Look for names that are leaving themselves open for exposure. The good Catholic wife who secretly votes pro-abortion, the gun control activist who secretly owns a gun.
- Use the modeled predictions to determine how any one person will vote on any given issue and affect that vote in a variety of ways.
UpGuard explains exactly why this is such critical information:
Calculated for 198 million potential voters, this adds up to a spreadsheet of 9.5 billion modeled probabilities, for questions ranging from how likely it is the individual voted for Obama in 2012, to whether they agree with the Trump foreign policy of “America First,” to how likely they are to be concerned with auto manufacturing as an issue, among others.
The spreadsheet is an impressive deployment of analytical might. However, while each potential voter is signified by their 32-character RNC internal ID, it is a one-step process to determine the real name associated with the modeled policy preferences, as the aforementioned “Contact File” also exposed in the database links the RNC ID to the potential voter’s actual identity.
This reporter was able, after determining his RNC ID, to view his modeled policy preferences and political actions as calculated by TargetPoint. It is a testament both to their talents, and to the real danger of this exposure, that the results were astoundingly accurate.
Trump’s victory, as explained by several counterinsurgency experts, came because he used a cornerstone of human persuasion: Find what the target wants, and make them believe you can give it to them. Looking at the massive profiling capabilities in the Deep Root and TargetPoint data troves, how Trump was able to tap into what voters were feeling becomes remarkably clear.
Data analytics are big business now; knowing everything about the customer/voter/visitor is considered critical to the growth of a company, website, or another group. What too many lose sight of, however, is the fact that every scrap of information used to define that demographic, every piece of information used to target that audience, is based on information about each of those individual people – and that information often comes without their consent or even their knowledge. Many businesses are aware of this, yet still choose to capitalize on that victimization, using that data to their advantage.
The flip side of that is the individual who is so quick to give up that private information, not understanding that a scrap given here or leaked there, leads to the data puzzle being put together very quickly. That puzzle becomes a profile, a roadmap of sorts for an analyst, hacker, or another party to learn how to manipulate your conduct and leverage your weaknesses for their benefit.
It is impossible to reclaim data that is released or taken; the internet is forever, and things are so integrated now that releasing it in one place means it will propagate to everything else. The average American can, however, take on a strict policy of not adding to that available data trove. It’s counterintuitive to a society that thrives on self-promotion and name recognition, but to stay safe in this Brave New World; there is no other option – especially for those who don’t subscribe to the leftist worldview.