Right-wing media are fearmongering over an Obama campaign smartphone app that makes it easier for any smartphone user and Obama supporter to get involved in the campaign without first having to visit a campaign office. Conservative media are claiming that it will allow users to "spy" on their neighbors and report that information back to the campaign.
In fact, the app is designed to simplify the process for getting involved in the 2012 campaign; it includes only information that is publicly available; and it has built-in privacy protections against abuse. Moreover, the Romney campaign also makes voter information freely available to anyone who registers on its website.
On July 30, the Obama for America campaign introduced an iPhone app that "will make it even easier to connect with the campaign and pitch in wherever you are." From the campaign:
This campaign's strength has always come from the millions of grassroots supporters who are organizing their communities, and the new Obama app puts the latest organizing tools right at your fingertips.
With the new app, you can easily find local volunteer events near you, get a list of voters to talk to in your neighborhood, and access all the information you need to spread the word: from President Obama's record to state-specific voting info. You can also stay up to date with breaking news, which you can instantly share with friends and family using Facebook, Twitter, email, and text messaging.
In an article on the app, Pro Publica noted: "All this is public information, which campaigns have long given to volunteers. But you no longer have to schedule a visit to a field office and wait for a staffer to hand you a clipboard and a printed-out list of addresses." Pro Publica went on to report:
It's unclear if the app displays all registered Democrats who live in a certain area, or only a subset of voters President Obama's campaign is trying to reach.
Asked about the privacy aspects of the new app, a spokesperson for the Obama campaign wrote that "anyone familiar with the political process in America knows this information about registered voters is available and easily accessible to the public."
The information included in the app has "traditionally been available to anyone who walks into a campaign field office," said the spokesperson, who declined to be named.
While the app makes voter information instantly available, it displays only a small cluster of addresses at a time. It has built-in mechanisms to detect when people are misusing the data, "such as people submitting way too many voter contacts in a short period of time," the spokesman said.
Pro Publica added that this "isn't the first time campaigns have released digital tools that make voter information freely available," and that the Romney campaign also has "online calling tools that give anyone who registers for their websites the names and phone numbers of voters to contact."
The New York Times also noted:
Mr. Obama is not the first candidate to have an iPhone app or to use technology to improve the collection of information on supporters. Both political parties have put enormous resources into developing online portals that can collect information, process donations and help organize volunteers.
It added that neither campaign "provides users access to canvassing lists."
But Fox Nation distorted the purpose of the app, claiming that the Obama campaign "wants" voters "to spy" on their neighbors:
Fox Nation linked to a post on Hot Air, which asserted that the app is "a tool that allows you to spy on your neighbors to determine which of them are naughty (read: not Obama supporters) and which are nice." Though Hot Air noted that such information is publicly available, it baselessly dismissed the app's safeguards against privacy abuses. Breitbart.com claimed the app "identifies all the Democrats in your neighborhood" and "rats out neighbors' political affiliation."
In fact, as Pro Publica reported, "It's unclear if the app displays all registered Democrats who live in a certain area, or only a subset of voters President Obama's campaign is trying to reach." Moreover, the app is designed to detect abuse: Users are given "only a small cluster of addresses at a time," and according to the campaign, any voter who does not want to be listed can easily be removed from the list.
According to Pro Publica, when a similar app was introduced in 2010, volunteers were "only given a certain number of voters that [they] could conceivably canvass." When a volunteer went over that limit, they shut the app down, said former campaign official Natalie Foster.