The article examines a voter registration data broker named
Aristotle, which buys voter registration lists from counties and states. It then combines that information with highly personal and detailed information about voters that it mines from various other sources before reselling the data to candidates, political operatives, and commercial entities.
The company has quietly become the largest voter registration data broker in the country and is the go-to source for people like political mastermind Karl Rove to learn everything about you, such as how much money you make, whether you own a gun and potentially even what medical procedures you’ve had done.
Unlike data brokers such as Choicepoint and Axciom, Aristotle has managed to remain under the radar for more than two decades. But it’s just as powerful as these other brokers, if not more, because the information it sells has the ability to directly influence presidential elections and public policy decisions.
I wrote about Aristotle a couple of years ago for a two-part series about how states violate voters’ privacy by selling or giving away voter registration records to data brokers, like Aristotle, who sometimes re-sell it to marketers. (About half of all states restrict how voter lists can be used, but twenty-two states allow marketers to purchase them for commercial use.) At the time I found more than a few problems with Aristotle’s practices, which I explain below.
Aristotle’s “Orwellian database” of voter information, which the company’s founder (pictured above) likens to the Human Genome Project, contains information about some 175 million American voters. One of its prize products, which has an appropriate panopticon-like name – Aristotle 360 – is a powerful database tool that provides clients not only with information about a voter’s address and the number of children he or she has, but also a lot of other information that may include “how much your house is worth, what kind of car you drive, what Web sites you visit, and whether you went to college, attend church, own guns, have had a sex change, or have been convicted of a felony or sex crime,” according to Vanity Fair.
The company’s founder, John Aristotle Phillips, demonstrated the tool’s power for Vanity Fair using a voter referred to as “John Smith”:
Phillips hits a button and up pops Smith’s basic information—address, phone number, etc. A click of the mouse brings more personal information—his photograph, his age and occupation, the names of his adult family members, his party affiliation and approximate income. Another click summons the exact amounts of political donations he has made. Phillips clicks once more, and a kind of molecular model appears on-screen, showing every political donor and potentially influential person Smith is linked to, in Atlanta and beyond, with dozens of interlocking nodes. Each node leads to the profile of another voter, about whom Aristotle knows just as much or more.
Phillips tells VF that he understands why the system might make some people uncomfortable but wraps himself awkwardly in the First Amendment to explain why it’s okay for him and political candidates to root through voters’ private lives in service of getting a candidate’s message out:
“I understand that point of view,” he says of the notion that voters might not want to be micro-targeted. “But I happen to think the rights of the speaker, in the case of political speech, and for the good of society, outweigh the rights of the recipient. I acknowledge it’s not a clear line. The benefits of allowing unfettered debate, even requiring people to hear positions they don’t want to hear, outweigh the right of the person to say, ‘I don’t want to hear this.’?”
Ironically, Phillips, whom VF describes as “shadowy” and “a cipher,” told the Village Voice in 2003 that he’s “a very private person.”
Aristotle has sold lists to Democrats and Republicans but relies on the latter for most of its business.
The Bush-Cheney campaign and the Republican National Committee paid the company hundreds of thousands of dollars to help win the 2004 election. Other clients have included presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, Christopher Dodd, John McCain, and Fred Thompson, as well as former House majority leader Tom DeLay and more than 200 congressional candidates in the 2006 election.
Phillips has also consulted for an opponent of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (a Bush Administration enemy) and, according to Vanity Fair, has been courting politicians in the Palestinian Fatah Party (one can imagine how valuable a database of Fatah voters might be to Israeli or U.S. intelligence agencies – although that’s not to say that Aristotle would willingly sell it to these entities if it managed to amass such information).
In addition to these political clients, Aristotle sells data to commercial clients such as U.S. Bancorp. Phillips tells Vanity Fair that it sells data only to clients who intend to use it for political purposes.
The company told me the same thing a couple of years ago, but in truth I discovered that it was selling data online to anyone who asked for it.
Although the company said it carefully vetted every buyer to ensure that it didn’t sell the data to anyone who might misuse it, I was able to buy lists of voters in California and South Carolina through Aristotle’s web site simply by registering as Britney Spears and Condoleezza Rice, without the company doing anything to verify my identity.
I paid for the voter lists with a credit card that didn’t match either name on the accounts I opened with Aristotle, yet this raised no alerts in Aristotle’s automated system.
I was able to purchase another list several days later in the same manner even after I had pointed out the issue to Aristotle and the company assured me it had introduced new procedures to force internet customers to be vetted by phone with a live operator before they could purchase data.
A company spokesman also told me that Aristotle never added commercial data to its voter registration lists, although I found evidence in its data lists that showed otherwise. The company now acknowledges in the Vanity Fair piece that it adds consumer marketing data to voter information.
Photo: Justin Thomas/Daily Telegraph