Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Great SlashDot discussion on Minnesota GOP's CD-ROM

This is interesting. From Slashdot and the ThinkProgress blog:

the Minnesota Republican Party has been distributing a new CD about a recent proposed amendment. The CD poses questions about some of the hot-button issues like abortion, gun control, and illegal immigration. The problem with this CD, however, is that it "phones home" to the Minnesota GOP, without making it clear that your name is attached. So, if you take a look at the CD and take time to answer the questions, beware. Once you are finished they will know not only who you are, but where you stand on the issues at hand.

The comments on Slashdot, as usual, cut right to the heart of the matter. The first comment (by "Anonymous Coward") is:

Let me get this straight;

If you submit a form with your name on it... it submits your form with your name on it?!! The shock! The horror!

Anyway, the real story, if you actually read, is that the information you submit is supposedly available on a publicly accessible website.

The next comment that is visible was sent in by Romancer and sez:

Here's the difference:

If I install a program on my computer it can ask for my name company name etc. It can then ask if I want to register this program and send this information outside the computer.

The difference would be that if the program asked for my information without stating that it would automatically be sent out it would be considered misrepresentation.

It is an understood assumption by consumers (one which I personally believe is valid as well as the standard) that software must inform you explicitly that any data will be sent outside the software/computer it is on.

One would not assume that the forms in software such as ACT, MS Word, MS Excel, or other programs that ask for your information would be sent out without at least telling you so before the process.

Even the software companies that are on the edge of customer acceptance in this area have a policy that you can read and find exactly what information is being sent back to the company. Quickbooks is a prime example. They monitor your usage and use pop-ups and in-program ads to try and sell you other products that they think you might use. This is specific data collected with the association to your registration. Which by the way is mandatory. But disclosed.

DerGeist then asks

Isn't this technically spyware?

And JourneyExpertApe responds:

No. Spyware, by definition is something that collects information about you and sends it without you knowing it. Filling out a form in a program that you deliberately ran and having that same program send that information somewhere is not spying. What would be the purpose of filling out such a survey (into which you entered your name), if not to be sent somewhere so you can receive political junk mail (or "analog spam", as I like to call it)?

Now, in my highschool government class (which was required for graduation), we had to take a "test" at the end that asked for our opinion on some key issues like welfare, taxes, and I forget what else. As I recall, this was to be sent elsewhere to be "evaluated". I always suspected that this information ended up on file with the state government so they could characterize everyone's political views. The difference is that the GOP software is optional.

The discussion progresses. Most of it becomes just people from the right and people from the left criticizing the other's side's approach to politics and publicity, what it means to be patriotic, that kind of stuff, but some comments do stick to the issue. It is discovered that some of the compiled information that the Minessota GOP gathered from these CDs is visible publicly on the internet, which is potentially more serious than just them taking that information without explicitly saying they would. (But then again, since they did not explicitly say anything about how that information would be used, they really can do whatever they want, and any feelings to the contrary are based on your own unfounded assumptions about an inexistent privacy policy). This post by tmandry sums up the main points raised and the reasonable counter-arguments:

You have to consider that the personal information, such as name and phone number, are probably there to keep people from voting more than once. Also, if you're filling out a form about your opinions and submitting it - whether it says you're sending it elsewhere or not - you're submitting it, for crap's sake. To submit means to turn something in. It's common sense, really.

Without a privacy policy, the state party can tell your views to anyone at all. If you give the "wrong" answers on abortion or other issues, they can tell your boss, members of your church, or anyone else. In fact, these answers could get distributed to campaigns in your town during get-out-the-vote efforts - precisely the place where "wrong" answers can be most damaging.

I'll believe it when I see it - if anyone really did that, it would be on the news in a heartbeat anyway. And - once again, common sense - it's just not going to happen.

What's worse. That information is on a public Web site. I'm not going to tell you what site we found it on, just to let you know that the data is there. And it can be found. Easily so. In fact, the experts I talked with suggested that having it so readily available is "amazingly stupid" of any data mining company.

Well that doesn't sound all so credible to me, but it does beg some consideration. It does sound like a privacy issue to me. But wait a minute - look at that image [] a little more closely. All I see is a bunch of names and dates and numbers - no opinions. If someone can prove that the opinions are shown, it's fairly serious. Otherwise, although many people may feel uncomfortable or intruded upon for it, it's only names. So do us all a favor and don't get the wrong impression.

Some more concise comments:

ch-chuck writes:

This is insufferable - we will not stand for any stinkin' politicians finding out where we stand on important issues.

and ynohoo asks:

if you receieve an un-solicited CD thru the mail, you stick it in your CD drive and see what happens?

You guys crack me up

yuna49 brings up a good point I would not have thought of:

One interesting side issue in all this concerns how marketing organizations can exploit CDs like these to end-run the do-not-call rule in telemarketing. In later comments by the original Minnesota Public Radio author; aut/

he cites an executive at the firm that developed this CD who talks about how marketers can use this approach to establish a "prior relationship" with people that can then be used to justify calling them for marketing purposes. I'd be curious if marketing versions of this CD make any of this explicit. Apparently the only terms of use on the MN Republican CD enforce the rights of the software developers.

Note that this doesn't apply to the Minnesota Republican Party's use of this technology since political solicitations are explicitly excluded from the do-not-call law (wonder why?).

and finally, justin w hall hints at the reasons why privacy may be important:

Are my opinons so dangerous?

(disclaimer: insane leftist psycho)

Apparently us liberals are now terrified of anyone knowing our opinions. Yeah, it's bad that there are no privacy concerns in the terms of use, and I'm not surprised that Republicans are trying to hide their underhanded methods of stealing information.

But crap, they aren't getting my social, or the combination to my luggage (12345). Don't you WANT the government to know how you feel on the issues? Isn't that the point of a democratic society? And your boss? Your church? Why be so afraid to think what you think?

I don't know, I guess I can see some people wanting that information private. That can't be the majority view, though...

Even I (of all people) will grant that this last post is missing a very important point. There are people out there who will not trust you or respect you if they find out you disagree with them on some issues. You may call it discrimination or prejudice, but it is a fairly natural human impulse that we must learn to fight in order to live in a civilized world. For example, I am fairly sure (but not 100% sure) that abortion is not murder (this is actually one of the questions on the GOP's CD-ROM). Some people who DO think abortion is murder therefore could believe that I think a certain form of murder is OK, and hence that I am an immoral person not worthy of any trust or respect. I myself am confident that my relationships and duties to my friends, family, employer, co workers, etc, are not affected by this pro-choice stand (just my duties to unborn babies, that's all), but I can see why a pro-lifer might not trust me to make that distinction (and that is, fundamentally, what prejudice and discrimination are). So for these reasons it might be prudent of me to keep this belief to myself, in case I ever encounter discrimination for it. (As you can plainly see, however, I have chosen to be open about how I feel on this issue, primarily because I think I could still be persuaded to change my views if presented by a good pro-life argument).

In other words, in the somewhat uncivilized world in which we live, I can see why some people might want to keep their opinions private. I think they should be able to do that. However, I think that if you reveal those opinions to a website, person, computer program, survey, etc, and did not care to find out how that information will be used and where it will end up, then you might just have revealed those opinions publicly.

What I mean to say is: If you care about keeping something private, make sure that when you reveal it, you are revealing it to those who will keep it private. Don't just ASSUME they will. If you reveal your private opinions to a computer program/website and just ASSUME they will be kept private, then you just did something very stupid, and have lost the right to keep that information private. It's like you shared ownership of something - it's not your anymore, this information now belongs to you AND to the people you shared it with, and THEY in turn can share it with whomever they wish (if they did not explicitly tell you they would not). Information is like property: Don't just give it out to anyone and assume it will be taken good care of. THAT's the moral of the story.


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