TECH
12/28/2015 04:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2017

Someone Let Your Voting Data Leak Online. Here's What That Means

"Our society has never had to confront the idea of all these records, all in one place, being available to anyone in the entire world for any purpose instantly."

There's a database of 191 million voter records online, and no one knows where it came from or who owns it. 

That revelation comes from security researcher Chris Vickery, who found the data on Dec. 20 and shared his discovery with an anonymous privacy advocate at DataBreaches.net and CSO Online's Steve Ragan, who confirmed that the records of American voters -- including himself -- are indeed available for free online.

The data in question includes the full of name of a given voter, his or her home address, phone number, gender, date of birth, state voter ID, unique voter ID, date of voter registration, political affiliation and whether or not he or she voted in primary elections, beginning in 2000. 

Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, famously said that "information wants to be free." But when it comes to the sacred act of voting in a democracy, should that information be freely and easily accessible online?  

"Our society has never had to confront the idea of all these records, all in one place, being available to anyone in the entire world for any purpose instantly," wrote Vickery on Reddit on Monday. "That's a hard pill to swallow."

While state voter registration records are public records, it isn't always easy -- or cheap -- to access them across the United States. 

Using voter data is also tricky. Depending on the state, the data may not be used for commercial or charitable purposes, or it may only be used for political or electoral purposes, or it may have no restrictions at all. 

Both Ragan and DataBreaches.net suggested that the data originated with campaign software vendor NationBuilder, which provides its users with access to a national voter file

NationBuilder founder and CEO Jim Gilliam, however, told The Huffington Post that while some of the data probably came through his firm, the schema -- or how it's structured -- is not theirs.

In a post published to the NationBuilder blog, Gilliam indicated that, from what his team has seen, there is no new or private information released in this database beyond what is already available from each state government.

In the meantime, this episode can tell us three things. 

First, data is a strategic asset in 21st century campaigns. When the Democratic National Committee cut off the Bernie Sanders campaign's access to a national voter file after a staffer looked at confidential information, the move posed a huge risk to the campaign's ability to do voter identification and fundraising. While the DNC ultimately restored the Sanders campaign's access, the episode showed how much that data matters. In addition, the way the Obama campaign used data to rally voters is of great interest to every presidential candidate this election season. 

Second, this episode will call attention to the ethics of public data access, from inequities of access between campaigns to whether this category of public records should be available online at all.

“We strongly believe in making voter information more accessible to political campaigns and advocacy groups, so we provide cleaned versions of that publicly accessible information to them for free," said Gilliam.

Generally speaking, Americans are comfortable with open data about safety and restaurants, but not their mortgages. It may come as a surprise to many citizens to know that state governments are publishing their voting history.

Finally, consumer data privacy deserves more scrutiny. While some states do regulate use, there are limited formal protections for voting data as a category of personal information or statutory consequences for campaigns or organizations that inadvertently expose it. 

In theory, the Federal Elections Commission might weigh in, but despite having figured out how to disclose data online, the dysfunctional regulator remains at war with itself, unlikely to curb abuse of election laws in 2016.

In practice, it's up to Congress and the courts to decide if threats to voter privacy merit national limits on data use.

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