Every Movement Scrutinized: President Obama’s Project Narwhal

There’s more than meets the eye with narwhals. One might picture the “unicorn of the sea:” a tusked porpoise related to the dolphins. But now, another narwhal rears its head – one that also occupies the darkness of the sea, stirring the water beneath, while the surface appears calm: President Obama’s ‘Project Narwhal.’

Project Narwhal describes the Obama team’s efforts to connect previously separate databases so that information on potential voters becomes accessible to the various branches of Obama’s campaign. In other words, Narwhal surfaces as a gigantic voter profile information system for the Obama team as a whole.

Last election, several different information reservoirs existed; however, each was separate from another. VoteBuilder diagnosed voters’ beliefs based on political activities, Blue State Digital held records on e-mail and text message registrations, one database listed donors, and yet another file held volunteers’ information.

The voter profile sharing permits campaign workers to target voters with specific issues. Instead of sending general “safe” messages, Obama’s canvassers and data researchers research a voter to deliver a tailored message. A single woman might receive a message on abortion, whereas an environmentalist would obtain a message on Obama’s energy policies.

Author Sasha Issenberg calls Narwhal the blending of “multiple identities of the engaged citizen—the online activist, the offline voter, the donor, the volunteer—into a single, unified political profile.” Obama’s project means citizens registered as Obama volunteers won’t find an unnecessary canvasser at their door, states Issenberg. When a donor reaches the contribution limit of $2,500, he or she will be persuaded to volunteer rather than donate more.

Obama 2012 Campaign Manager Jim Messina hints at an even larger plan in Chicago, “Our efforts on the ground and on technology will make 2008 look prehistoric.” Messina employs an in-house design crew, gear team, and tech developers to craft a “top-secret application” to “track every conversation that every single Obama volunteer has…every action they take.”

Personalization conceals the team’s actions for a potential desecration of voter privacy. Michael Slaby, Obama’s integration and innovation officer, believes his program promotes “treating people like people.” His new invention, ‘a “microlistening” and computer modeling program,’ will uncover “online and off-line behavior patterns for voter information” in order to “personalize every interaction we have with the campaign: fundraising, volunteering, persuasion, mobilization.”

Another Narwhal project concept involves a type of social network. Volunteers log in with their Facebook account for granted admission to “any tool…in a field office.” Slaby advertises, “You can have that at home, on your computer, in real time, in a way that connects to what your friends are doing and what the people around you are doing.” In the process, the campaign obtains access to the volunteers’ Facebook networks, as well as information volunteers submit on voters.

The system will be so precise that, according to The Daily Beast, Obama’s team “won’t send its backers a video and say, ‘Share this with everyone you know’; it will say, ‘Share this with your four Facebook friends in Pennsylvania’s crucial Lehigh Valley swing district who are worried about the president’s tax policies.’”

Jim Messina denies the secret project to claim, “some people think we have a magic formula to win this campaign - what we really have is you.” He elaborates that Obama’s campaign opponents lack Obama’s grassroots network. He forgets to explan that grassroots is their magic formula: to know all through few – the potential voters through the volunteers.

President Obama is a smart guy with a brilliant strategy worth studying. He and Messina focus on the “you” – the power of each individual, or “you,” to contribute to the campaign while persuading others to join. Voters flock towards this: a campaign that appears to believe in them and their potential as a unique person. This campaign recognizes the difference one person can make in persuading a family member or friend to vote for Obama.   

The peril approaches when Obama’s campaign grapples over the line of personal privacy versus personal targeting. Researching every person in order to manipulate a variety of messages telling voters exactly what they want to hear treads upon dangerous waters.

George Orwell in 1984, warns of a ‘Big Brother’ government, "There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment… You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

Yes, Obama’s team possesses a narwhal lurking beneath the waves. Here’s another fact about narwhals though: between polar bears and Inuit hunters, even these massive creatures are not without predators.