How the Obama Campaign's Data-Miners Knew What You Watched On TV

Since the campaign is done, the Obama campaign's massive, supersecret tech operation has finally been opened up for the world to marvel at. Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic has written a fascinating profile of Obama's tech team. Buried in it is the fairly unsettling fact that the Obama campaign's data-mining operation could use their databases to determine what you were watching on TV.

The Obama campaign's sophisticated technology platform, "Narwhal," is being credited with giving Obama a significant edge over Romney, whose much-touted "Orca" system pooped out on election day, when it was most needed. One key part of Obama's Narwhal was an analytics department five times larger than the 2008 team, which gathered an unprecedented amount of data on potential voters, for use in determining campaign strategy. They had so much data, in fact, they even knew what people were watching on TV—and not in a ratings sense, but in the sense of whether you, individually, had tuned into a certain program:

Madrigal explains:

With [project manager Carol Davidsen's] help the Analytics team built a tool they called The Optimizer, which allowed the campaign to buy eyeballs on television more cheaply. They took set-top box (that is to say, your cable or satellite box or DVR) data from Davidsen's old startup, Navik Networks, and correlated it with the campaign's own data. This occurred through a third party called Epsilon: the campaign sent its voter file and the television provider sent their billing file and boom, a list came back of people who had done certain things like, for example, watched the first presidential debate.

(emphasis mine)

So the Obama campaign's data-mining team could get a big list of the names of people who watched certain things on TV. I have a lot of questions about this. Is this a common marketing tactic? Why would a billing file show what people watched on TV, anyway? And can we use this data to round up everyone obsessed with Homeland and put them on an island until the series is done, so I won't have to hear about it any more?