The politics of privacy and the privacy of politics: Parties, elections and voter surveillance in Western democracies

Colin Bennett


This paper surveys the various voter surveillance practices currently observed in the United States, assesses the extent to which they have been adopted in other democratic countries, and discusses the broad implications for privacy and democracy. Five interrelated techniques are analyzed: the development of voter management databases; the use of personal data from commercial data brokerage firms; micro-targeting; the decentralization of data to local campaigns; and “targeted sharing” through social media. Structural and cultural differences between the United States and other democratic countries prevent the extensive and direct export of many of these practices. Yet issues about inappropriate communication from parties, about the sharing of data across systems, about intrusive uses of the Internet and social media, and about data breaches have surfaced in some countries. Furthermore, trends in Western party systems towards a greater de-alignment of the electorate will surely place further pressures on parties to target voters outside their traditional bases, and to find new, cheaper, and potentially more intrusive, ways to influence their political behavior. Voter surveillance requires further comparative analysis from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The issues are not confined to the privacy of the individual voter, but relate to broader trends in democratic politics.    


Privacy, Parties, Elections, Surveillance

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