Moneyball Campaigns, Stasi 2.0 and the Death of Democracy in America
This will be a very long post. I would break it up into manageable chunks, but I fear that having to defend my writings from entrenched stalwarts of the status quo in the democratic party would sidetrack this post.
There is an intersection of events and ideas that together lead to a much darker conclusion than addressing them individually. It is no secret that Edward Snowden has unleashed a firestorm of debate with his revelations about the state of surveillance in America, and around the world. That topic alone is far too large for one post to address, but it has unveiled some interesting material to work with.
The photo to the right is from protest signs being carried around various protests in Germany this summer, organized against the collusion of the American and German spy networks.
President Jimmy Carter rocked the foreign media last month with a statement he made in Atlanta at a conference on U.S.-German relations:
“America has no functioning democracy at this moment”
“‘… I think the invasion of human rights and American privacy has gone too far,’ he said.
‘I think that the secrecy that has been surrounding this invasion of privacy has been excessive, so I think that [Snowden’s] bringing of it to the public notice has probably been, in the long term, beneficial.’
Asked to elaborate, he said, ‘I think the American people deserve to know what their Congress is doing.'”
People may disagree with Jimmy Carter, but many of us agree that he is spot on with his determination. Jonathan Turley, a constitutional lawyer, and a leading voice of civil libertarianism in this country wrote at the TurleyBlog about Carter’s proclamation:
“Carter’s voice at this moment is incredibly important. Most media has ignored such criticism of Obama and his authoritarian powers. Even the story on Carter has been given limited attention and only because smaller blogs have continued to spread the word. We are living in the greatest crisis of civil liberties in our history and the public is facing a unified front of all three branches against efforts to deal with erosion of the rights of citizens in this country. The question is whether the public will finally awaken to this peril. Carter’s courageous voice could not have been heard at a more critical time for this nation.”
After Snowden’s revelations about NSA activity revealed the degree to which the NSA and Germany have been collaborating over the decades on surveillance and intelligence sharing, Germans began to rise up and protest. The Stasi 2.0 movement seeks to unveil the collusion between the two countries spy agencies, and likens it to a new, technological form of repression and draw similarities to the Stasi (the East German secret police operating between 1950 and reunification in 1990).
When President Obama went to Germany in June, he was met with much protest. Here is a flikr photo collection from one protest at Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie, for those whose history is a little faint, was the famous gate through the Berlin Wall between West and East Germany.
“The NSA saga continues to unfold, even after recent revelations regarding XKeyscore, the surveillance program with which American intelligence officials are reputed to have nearly unlimited access to the activities of Internet users around the world. Now, the news magazine “Der Spiegel” reports that Germany’s Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) passed on data to one of its US counterparts, the National Security Agency (NSA).
According to “Spiegel,” the NSA gained access in December 2012 alone to 500 million pieces of metadata handed over by German security officials. Metadata includes details about telephone connections and email addresses.”
The German people are not pleased, after having spent 40 years under the thumb of the Stasi. German media are rife with writings likening America’s surveillance techniques with the Stasi:
“In a guest editorial for Spiegel Online on Tuesday, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said reports that the United States could access and track virtually all forms of Internet communication were “deeply disconcerting” and potentially dangerous.
‘The more a society monitors, controls and observes its citizens, the less free it is,’ she said.
‘The suspicion of excessive surveillance of communication is so alarming that it cannot be ignored. For that reason, openness and clarification by the U.S. administration itself is paramount at this point. All facts must be put on the table.’
Markus Ferber, a member of Merkel’s Bavarian sister party who sits in the European Parliament, went further, accusing Washington of using -American-style Stasi methods’.
‘I thought this era had ended when the DDR fell,’ he said, using the German initials for the failed German Democratic Republic.”
In any case, I don’t feel that I have to defend my, or others’, use of the term “National Stasi Agency.” A search on google today turns up over 26,000 hits for that exact term. I suppose the fact that I live with a German woman might color my interest in how the evolution of the Stasi and the NSA have many similarities, but I digress…
Even here in Montana, editorialists like George Ochenski are writing about the erosion of our civil liberties:
“The ‘right side of history’ should not and cannot tolerate the massive loss of individual privacy – and government disrespect for the people who pay its bills – that is occurring right now under Obama. Never before in our nation’s existence has our government turned on its own citizenry with such capabilities. Basically, nothing is secret, private or personal anymore – it’s all subject to government scrutiny, from who you communicate with to what you buy to what you look at on the Internet. Everything is up for grabs and it is inconceivable that our nation can continue to exist under the banner of “freedom” if the Obama administration, or any other, allows such unconstitutional abuses to continue.”
One more piece from President Carter about the erosion of human rights by our country written last year, and I’ll move on:
“The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.
Revelations that top officials are targeting people to be assassinated abroad, including American citizens, are only the most recent, disturbing proof of how far our nation’s violation of human rights has extended. This development began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and has been sanctioned and escalated by bipartisan executive and legislative actions, without dissent from the general public. As a result, our country can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues…
At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”
So what does any of this have to do with Moneyball political campaigns? Glad you asked. I was lambasted recently for having written a post that linked to an article at the Volokh Conspiracy (a leading conservative/libertarian law blog) where one of the authors comes to a conclusion about the Obama campaign’s use of the Facebook Platform (that it might have been illegal, and contributed to Obama’s win) and then retracted his conclusion.
I linked to the article after the author, Stewart Baker — who is a prominent conservative lawyer, and was a President GW Bush political appointee, and who is described by The Washington Post as “one of the most techno-literate lawyers around,” — retracted his conclusion that what Obama’s campaign had done was illegal. But Baker’s description of what Jim Messina did with big data and Facebook is still an important starting point for dissecting Messina’s operations. None of what I wrote or am writing about has anything to do with Baker’s conclusions, and Messina’s operation has been written about extensively.
“To understand how it works, you must first understand the vast technological engine that powered the campaign but remained largely out of view of the public and the press. Messina, the campaign manager, often boasted about how the Obama 2012 effort would be “the most data-driven campaign ever.” But what that truly meant — the extent to which the campaign used the newest tech tools to look into people’s lives and the sheer amount of personal data its vast servers were crunching — remained largely shrouded. The secrecy around the operation was partly because the president’s strategists wanted to maintain their competitive edge. But it was also no doubt because they worried that practices like “data mining” and “analytics” could make voters uncomfortable…
The digital-analytics team… developed an idea: Why not try sifting through self-described supporters’ Facebook pages in search of friends who might be on the campaign’s list of the most persuadable voters? Then the campaign could ask the self-identified supporters to bring their undecided friends along. The technique, as they saw it, could also get supporters to urge friends to register to vote, to vote early or to volunteer and donate.
Identifying persuadable friends became a significant undertaking…
They started with a list that grew to a million people who had signed into the campaign Web site through Facebook. When people opted to do so, they were met with a prompt asking to grant the campaign permission to scan their Facebook friends lists, their photos and other personal information. In another prompt, the campaign asked for access to the users’ Facebook news feeds, which 25 percent declined, St. Clair said.
Once permission was granted, the campaign had access to millions of names and faces they could match against their lists of persuadable voters, potential donors, unregistered voters and so on. “It would take us 5 to 10 seconds to get a friends list and match it against the voter list,” St. Clair said. They found matches about 50 percent of the time, he said. But the campaign’s ultimate goal was to deputize the closest Obama-supporting friends of voters who were wavering in their affections for the president. “We would grab the top 50 you were most active with and then crawl their wall” to figure out who were most likely to be their real-life friends, not just casual Facebook acquaintances. St. Clair, a former high-school marching-band member who now wears a leather Diesel jacket, explained: “We asked to see photos but really we were looking for who were tagged in photos with you, which was a really great way to dredge up old college friends — and ex-girlfriends,” he said…
By March 2012, Wagner’s team had a workable list of what it deemed to be the most persuadable voters — in total, roughly 15 million of them in the swing states. Messina ordered the campaign to direct a majority of its efforts toward winning them back, one by one if necessary.”
The Dashboard platform was Messina’s lynchpin of combining all of the various different data sources into one unified system for access. Interfacing it with Facebook, via a Facebook Platform app allowed the campaign to extract all of the data from the “Friends” of the volunteer that signed on. So for instance, knowing that one of my friends was an Obama for America volunteer and used Facebook to sign on, he granted the campaign access to almost everything that I’ve placed on Facebook (including who my friends are), and that information was then cross-tabbed with everything else that Dashboard had on me (yeah, I’ll admit it I donated money to Obama in 2008 and have paid for it ever since with a deluge of begs) to build a profile for how to bring me back into the Obama fold. That explained a lot of the Facebook and email activity I received.
The Washington Post also did a writeup about Dashboard and Facebook:
“Early in 2011, some Obama operatives visited Facebook, where executives were encouraging them to spend some of the campaign’s advertising money with the company. “We started saying, ‘Okay, that’s nice if we just advertise,’ ” Messina said. “But what if we could build a piece of software that tracked all this and allowed you to match your friends on Facebook with our lists, and we said to you, ‘Okay, so-and-so is a friend of yours, we think he’s unregistered, why don’t you go get him to register?’ Or ‘So-and-so is a friend of yours, we think he’s undecided. Why don’t you get him to be decided?’ And we only gave you a discrete number of friends. That turned out to be millions of dollars and a year of our lives. It was incredibly complex to do.”
But this third piece of the puzzle provided the campaign with another treasure trove of information and an organizing tool unlike anything available in the past. It took months and months to solve, but it was a huge breakthrough. If a person signed on to Dashboard through his or her Facebook account, the campaign could, with permission, gain access to that person’s Facebook friends. The Obama team called this ‘targeted sharing.'”
It was Stewart Baker’s initial contention at Volokh (later redacted) that Messina’s use of an app to interface with Facebook likely violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), because such use was not explicitly allowed within Facebook’s Terms of Service (ToS). And the Obama Department of Justice has aggressively been using the CFAA to prosecute people who use an online system outside of the explicit boundaries of ToS’s. The CFAA is a whole ‘nother topic for another day, so I won’t dive too deep into it.
Suffice it to say here, that the CFAA is what DoJ used to go after Aaron Swartz, which led to his suicide, and led to Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Zoe Lofgren to introduce “Aaron’s Law” to limit prosecutorial overreach.
Stewart Baker became interested in the Facebook/Obama connection from an article written by his partner Michael Vatis at Steptoe & Johnson. Who’s Michael Vatis? Besides being a Clinton appointee, he lists the following on his resume:
“Mr. Vatis has spent most of his career addressing cutting edge issues at the intersection of law, policy, and technology. He was the founding director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center at the FBI, the first government organization responsible for detecting, warning of, and responding to cyber attacks, including computer crimes, cyber terrorism, cyber espionage, and information warfare. “
Vatis is no conspiracy kook, or WND-style loonie. Vatis’ article, which he has since removed from his StepToe Cyberblog, stirred a lot of activity, including all of the articles and comments at the Volokh Conspiracy Blog. Larry Seltzer, at ZDNET’s issued a correction after he wrote about Vatis’ article:
“Correction: The blog post which inspired this story has issued a correction which affects this story as well. Apps, such as the Obama campaign app, are subject to a separate set of terms which are different from those cited in this story. The actions taken by the app and the campaign conform to those terms, and therefore they do not violate the CFAA under anyone’s reading of the act.”
My goal here isn’t to determine whether Messina’s tactics ran afoul of the CFAA or not. There is plenty of debate about that as it is. Seltzer is one that doesn’t think that the Dashboard interface violated the law. Vatis and others either think it did, or are undecided, including Ilya Somin at Volokh:
“At this point, I’m not sure whether Vatis is right or whether his critics in the VC commentariat are. But I do know enough to say that there is a serious debate here”
That’s a debate that will reverberate through the back channels of tech blogs and campaign headquarters for quite a while. I don’t really care if Obama broke the law or not, as it isn’t relevant to this post. And as the next presidential election heats up, it will be interesting to see how Facebook and the DoJ proceed with the legalities. In any case, here’s what the DoJ had to say about this sort of potential cyber crime:
“In a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security, Richard Downing, the Justice Department’s deputy chief of computer crime, testified in part that “customers who intentionally exceed those [terms of service] limitations and obtain access to the business’s proprietary information and the information of other customers” should be eligible for prosecution under U.S. cyber law, according to his prepared statement.”
Ok, so what did Facebook have to say about Messina and the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook data via it’s Dashboard interface? Glad you asked:
“The campaign’s exhaustive use of Facebook triggered the site’s internal safeguards. “It was more like we blew through an alarm that their engineers hadn’t planned for or knew about,” said St. Clair, who had been working at a small firm in Chicago and joined the campaign at the suggestion of a friend. “They’d sigh and say, ‘You can do this as long as you stop doing it on Nov. 7.’ “”
The question I’d ask would be: if a republican campaign had been making this use of Facebook, would they have been so forgiving? And if it truly was ok, why would they ask them to stop on Nov. 7th? And will they let campaigns use this kind of data source again? Again the legality point is moot because 1) Facebook is solidly in Obama’s corner here, with one of their founders, Chris Hughes, having advised the 2008 campaign; and 2) the DoJ has prosecutorial discretion about the CFAA, and would never go after its boss, even if there were a ToS violation.
There’s a new documentary out called “Terms and Conditions May Apply” that gets into the whole scheme of things with ToS’s at social media sites like Facebook.
Director Cullen Hoback gets deep into how people sign away their privacy rights without even understanding what they are doing. In an interview an documentary review, they had this to say:
“The film’s title, “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” refers to the fine print no one really reads before using services like Facebook, but the focus is more complex. Yes, Facebook collects reams of data on our every move. But that’s not the scary part. The scary part, this film says, is that law enforcement then goes looking for all of that information — and sometimes, they find it.
“This film is not about how corporations misuse our data, because that to me didn’t seem like the biggest problem,” Hoback said in an interview. Rather, it was the implications for modern citizens when overeager government officials are actively searching for any potential signs of terrorists, and the potential for abuse absent any protections…
With the proliferation of surveillance cameras and digital intermediaries in our modern lives, Hoback argues, the world is becoming a Panopticon — a term first coined by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham for a structure where the occupant could be under surveillance at any time, but will never know precisely when someone is really watching. The point is that behavior changes even when surveillance is little more than a threat.
“That’s so over the top!” I can hear you thinking. But that’s precisely why this film is so interesting. Hoback catalogues example after example of why storing all of our information for others to later comb through is such a bad idea.”
The Panopticon reference brings to mind Stasi Zersetzung activities:
“By the 1970s, the Stasi had decided that methods of overt persecution which had been employed up to that time, such as arrest and torture, were too crude and obvious. It was realised that psychological harassment was far less likely to be recognised for what it was, so its victims, and their supporters, were less likely to be provoked into active resistance, given that they would often not be aware of the source of their problems, or even its exact nature. Zersetzung was designed to side-track and “switch off” perceived enemies so that they would lose the will to continue any “inappropriate” activities.
Tactics employed under Zersetzung generally involved the disruption of the victim’s private or family life… Other practices included smear campaigns, denunciation, provocation, psychological warfare, psychological subversion, wiretapping, bugging, mysterious phone calls …
One great advantage of the harassment perpetrated under Zersetzung was that its subtle nature meant that it was able to be denied. That was important given that the GDR was trying to improve its international standing during the 1970s and 80s.”
And Reuters put out an article about the vagaries of the CFAA, noting how it has the potential for abuse:
“The debate [about the Obama campaign’s use of Dashboard and Facebook] is centered around a key phrase in the law: that it is illegal to “intentionally access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access.” Critics argue this language is too broad and vague and could turn ordinary people into criminals for things many do routinely, such as dabble in online shopping or scan an online matchmaking site at work.”
So maybe the campaign is off the hook for the use of the Dashboard connector app, but what about individuals within the campaign and there use of the data? Who else is going to access that data? Can that bring a violation of the CFAA? Many questions that ultimately will wind up either in many court cases (a few already are headed to the Supreme Court), or in revisions of federal law.
So what about all of this data collection? That brings us back to Obama’s previous Deputy Chief of Staff, Jim Messina’s promotion to campaign boss. Here’s a bit of analysis from Ars Technica into the Narwhal data system the Obama campaign designed and built:
To pull it off, the Obama team relied almost exclusively on Amazon’s cloud computing services for computing and storage power. At its peak, the IT infrastructure for the Obama campaign took up “a significant amount of resources in AWS’s Northern Virginia data center,” said Ecker. “We actually had to start using beefier servers, because for a period of time we were buying up most of the available smaller Elastic Compute Cloud instance types in the East data center.”
Atop Amazon’s services, the Obama team built Narwhal—a set of services that acted as an interface to a single shared data store for all of the campaign’s applications, making it possible to quickly develop new applications and to integrate existing ones into the campaign’s system. Those apps include sophisticated analytics programs like Dreamcatcher, a tool developed to “microtarget” voters based on sentiments within text. And there’s Dashboard, the “virtual field office” application that helped volunteers communicate and collaborate.
“Being able to decouple all the apps from each other [by using Narwhal] has such power,” Harper Reed, the chief technology officer for the Obama campaign, told Ars. “It allowed us to scale each app individually and to share a lot of data between the apps, and it really saved us a lot of time.” The resulting platform gave Obama for America tools that helped “force-multiply” volunteers, giving them organizational and communication tools that made the Obama “ground game” even more effective.”
Obama’s campaign data center was called “the Cave” (photo below). There’s a good analysis by Engaged DC (pdf) about the whole operation. Here’s a quick blurb from the intro:
“‘The Cave’ in Obama for America’s Chicago headquarters housed the campaign’s Analytics team. Behind closed doors, more than 50 data analysts used Big Data to predict the individual behavior of tens of millions of American voters…
Obama 2012 didn’t have the magic of hope and change. What it did have was a relentless focus on operational excellence and massive scale.
Despite being evenly matched financially, Obama for America conceived of and built an operation 4 times the size of its competition.”
As with Dashboard and the public face of Obama’s campaign, the NSA and all of the other associated data mining services of the Obama administration are working on coalescing all of the various data sources they have into one massive system called “Bumblehive” at the Utah Data Center (photo below).
It isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that what Messina and his team learned about “big data” is but a campaign version of what the NSA is doing on the stealth side. Afterall, Messina and David Axelrod had access to the full suite of NSA information and briefings, being the Prez’s right-hand men in the oval office for years.
That is to say, that Messina’s team employed methods that were born in the skunkworks of the nation’s intelligence industry and its contractors. And as we have no disclosure on where a campaign gets all of its data, we are left to trust that the campaign, born out of the backrooms of the White House somehow built a moat around their campaign and didn’t allow any leakage from the massive “Bumblehive.” Here’s a flowchart of how Bumblehive is designed.
Conceptually, it isn’t much different from Dashboard & Narwhal (the campaign’s data design strategy). What’s to keep a backroom op from interfacing the two, ala Facebook style app? It’s not like the White House has been a home to campaign operatives who take privacy seriously. Remember the White House Plumbers?
The Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cyber-security Initiative (IC CNCI) has this to say about its first data center.
“The activities under way to implement the recommendations of the Cyberspace Policy Review build on the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI) launched by President George W. Bush in National Security Presidential Directive 54/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 23 (NSPD-54/ HSPD-23) in January 2008. President Obama determined that the CNCI and its associated activities should evolve to become key elements of a broader, updated national U.S. cybersecurity strategy. These CNCI initiatives will play a key role in supporting the achievement of many of the key recommendations of President Obama’s Cyberspace Policy Review.”
How about if Karl Rove or one of his proteges were to get back in the White House? Imagine them having access to Bumblehive and a Dashboard-style proboscis poking around in social networking sites around the world. Here’s what author Greg Palast had to say about that:
“Karl Rove – “Turdblossom” as Bush called him – has a computer-data-mining system called DataTrust, which he’s joining up with a data-mining computer system set up the Koch brothers called Themis. These are voter-eating machines, designed to juice the attack on voter rolls by GOP secretaries of state. Ready for this? Over 22 million names were purged from voter rolls in the last two years. Those figures are from the US Election Assistance Commission – hidden in plain sight. And who gets purged?
Black voters, Latinos, Native Americans. In Colorado, the Republican secretary of state purged 19.4 percent of voters – that’s one in five! In the book, she’s the Purge’n General. Obama took Colorado in ’08. He can kiss it goodbye.
My co-investigator and I, Bobby Kennedy, called the secretary of state of California, a Dem, who told us her GOP predecessor blocked 42 percent of new voter registrations because they had “suspicious” names – like Mohammed. For this reason, despite massive voter drives and the increase in Latino citizenship, Hispanic registration hasdropped by 1 million since 2008. Caramba!
In all, 5,901,814 legitimate votes and voters were tossed out of the count in 2008.”
So if this sort of access is ok for Obama and Messina, is it good for say a Marco Rubio with a Karl Rove in the White House?
And this all brings me back around to Moneyball. You can get a quick view of one form of Moneyball by checking out the Wall Street Journal’s interactive app. But mostly, the Moneyball reference comes from the sports references to it coming out of the book and movie about Moneyball.
“What, if anything, could a sports analytics conference teach a political junkie?
Since President Obama’s reelection, we’ve heard countless stories about the startup nature of his campaign, with its focus on digital, technology, and analytics to drive decisions about messaging and marketing.
Data played a major role. There’s perhaps no better example than the constant testing of email subject lines. The performance of the Obama email with the subject line “I will be outspent” earned the campaign an estimated $2.6 million. Had the campaign gone with the lowest-performing subject line, it would have raised $2.2 million less, according to “Inside the Cave,” a detailed report from Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini and the team at Engage.
Obama’s embrace of analytics has caused a reckoning, particular for conservatives. It’s not that other campaigns ignored data, but Chicago clearly made it a priority in a different way.
Politics didn’t come up at the conference, except for a single question to Nate Silver, the FiveThirtyEight election oracle who got his start doing statistical analysis on baseball players. Silver suggested there wasn’t much comparison between the two worlds.
But even if there’s no direct correlation, there was an underlying message I heard consistently throughout the conference that applies to both: Data is an incredibly valuable resource for organizations, but you must be able to communicate its value to stakeholders making decisions — whether that’s in the pursuit of athletes or voters.”
Moneyball campaigns are the future, obviously — because they win. But they are the future in the same way the the Bumblehive is the future of NSA spying. We are on an intersection of big data in campaigns with big data of the spy industry with little to no laws and regulation to protect our rights to privacy in either sphere.
There is a huge potential for misuse of data by campaigns either through overt data mining techniques like Facebook and Dashboard, or by campaigns potentially digging into the Bumblehive’s treasure trove to augment the Narwhal — or whatever the successor to the Obama campaign’s or a republican’s campaign’s data extraction will be called.
So when Jim Messina gets sold to the Tories for a simple mega-buck, and he is caught gushing about “big data”, I and millions of other people begin to get worried. And Germans begin to fret about the Stasi 2.0.
Big data needs to be regulated, and regulated hard, whether it is Facebook’s Terms of Service, a campaign’s overt sweeping up of any and all data it can get, and the spy industry’s vacuuming of the internet. A firewall needs to be built in law between the work of campaigns and of the back rooms of the White House, as the same players move in the shadows between the two.
I am not a trusting person when it comes to my personal data. And after having listened to Jim Messina give the commencement speech at the U of M a few months ago, I’m even less trusting. I’ll leave you with a final video of Jim Messina at his best: