Microsoft, Yahoo Give User Data to Politicians

Dennis Faas's picture

According to a new report, Microsoft and Yahoo have been handing over the names, zip codes, and other personal information of their clients to both major U.S. political parties. Worse yet, those targeted have no idea that they are the victims of a political ploy.

Seeing targeted advertisements is nothing new to those who frequent the Internet. In the milliseconds that it takes for a page to load, advertisers can identify a user visiting a site and display ads based on what they know about a user.

For example, someone checking the Euro Cup scores on the ESPN website might see an advertisement for soccer shoes on the very next page.

Political Targeting Seeks People by Name

But political targeting seeks out individual voters by name. In order to do so, political affiliates scan stacks of public voting records, using such criteria as party registration, turnout history, and previous donations.

The campaigns themselves often hire external companies that refine these voter lists with information not publicly available (like income, education, magazine subscriptions, and purchasing habits).

However, finding potential voters online can be difficult, since no public record connects individuals to a particular Internet address. (Source:

According to a new report from the site ProPublica, that's where Microsoft and Yahoo come into the picture.

Microsoft, Yahoo Provide Missing Links

ProPublica says that these companies house vast stores of user data (the basis of the "cookies", or tiny bits of user information related to Internet activity, that get placed on users' computers) that can be of immense use to political campaigns.

Political campaigners on both sides of the fence know this information exists and have reportedly worked with both Yahoo and Microsoft to acquire it. It's recently been reported that Microsoft was contacted by President Obama's re-election camp about this data.

On the other end, Targeted Victory (a firm that specializes in digital political targeting) has performed nearly $4 million worth of political targeting work on behalf of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign since March 2012.

This is, in fact, completely legal -- so long as the companies collecting the data haven't promised to keep user information private. Microsoft uses a privacy policy that fails to make clear where they stand on targeted political advertising.

Yahoo, however, is perfectly lucid about working with political targeting firm CampaignGrid to design advertising. (Source:

Meanwhile, Google and Facebook have publicly denied offering this kind of service to political parties.

Google's privacy policy classifies political beliefs as "sensitive personal information." While Facebook does allow political groups to use targeted advertising, it does so only after its users have decided to share their political affiliations. (Source:

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