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antigay CD-ROM sparks controversy in Minnesota

antigay CD-ROM sparks controversy in Minnesota

A CD-ROM that the Minnesota Republican Party in St. Paul is sending out to build support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage has another purpose: building up a voter database. And that's stirred up a technological tempest on the Internet and among Democrats who say the disc will improperly gather data from people who examine it on their computers. Privacy experts say they're concerned that the GOP won't adequately warn users that it's collecting the data, and they worry where the information will end up. But GOP officials said the final version of the CD that's due to be mailed soon to hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans will contain a notice that the information gathered may be used by the party. The discs contain video clips from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, secretary of state Mary Kiffmeyer, state auditor Pat Anderson, and house speaker Steve Sviggum. They talk about what they consider the dangers of same-sex marriage and why they believe a constitutional amendment is needed to ensure marriage remains between one man and one woman. To watch the video, a person has to go to an Internet site and punch in an ID code that tells the party who is viewing it. Once the video is going, viewers are asked questions on subjects like abortion, gun control, and party preference. Party officials distributed what they called test copies of the CDs to the media on Monday. Those discs contained no disclaimers saying that data was being collected and transmitted. Political parties used to collect voter information by canvassing citizens one by one or paying for subscriber lists. Minnesota GOP spokesman Mark Drake said the CD-ROM is just the latest way to collect information. "It's an ageless part of American politics, and I don't think it's anything that is particularly a big deal beyond that it's high-tech," he said. "It's not different than 30 years ago filling out a voter survey in your kitchen and then mailing it in." Drake pointed to recent Internet surveys by the DFL Party and the teachers union Education Minnesota as similar examples. But some privacy advocates disagree. They said someone who fills out a survey on those sites is knowingly providing the groups with information, while it's not clear from the Republican CD that the data is being transmitted back to the GOP or even what other data about the user is being collected. Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said the GOP CD should clearly indicate that the packet is not only a video on same-sex marriage but a tool to collect voter data. "Anytime the consumer is providing information to an entity and they're not aware of how that information is being used or what purpose the information may be put to, they're at a disadvantage," she said. Coney also had concerns that the data could be accessed by a third party. Christa Heibel, CEO of International Falls-based CH Consulting, which produced the discs, said specific firewalls have been developed to ensure that the voter information is protected. But she spoke after Minnesota Public Radio was able to access some of the data that was collected during testing. MPR discovered that data collected by the CDs were being sent to a computer server that was not secured, making personal information in the database vulnerable to snoopers. The GOP said the server will be fully secured when the CDs are mailed. And Heibel said it should be apparent from the final packaging and other means that voters will be sharing information with the party. "The packaging specifically uses the word 'interactive,' the presentation after each of the questions that we are asking uses the words 'submit' and 'continue,' and I think the party has been very up-front about the fact that they are obviously asking for this information to receive that data back, and they care about what the voter has to say," she said. DFL Party spokesman David Ruth called it a "sneaky tactic" to provide information about the same-sex marriage amendment while mining for other personal information. State senator Steve Kelley, a leader on technology issues, said the public should be cautious whenever asked to submit information to a third party. "I think with this CD for example, in order to make sure that their privacy is protected, the best solution is to throw it in the trash can," he said. It's illegal for businesses to gather personal data without giving proper notice about how the information will be used, how one can limit its use, and how the data will be secured, said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in San Francisco. The rules aren't so clear in politics. "In the political field, candidates and parties have gotten away with a lot of practices that would clearly be illegal if a business did them," Hoofnagle said. "Both parties are using detailed databases of personal information that are completely unregulated. And they're not likely to be regulated, because the politicians themselves would have to limit their activities in order to do so." (AP)

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