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McKenna campaign pilfers alumni data

Gary Caruso | Friday, January 29, 2010

The publication of this column specifically on this Friday was set merely by chance since it was scheduled by an editor at The Observer, in part, as a small component on a master semester schedule for all columnists. It is the first of my long-standing Friday columns which just so happens to coincide on the weekend before Notre Dame alumnus and Illinois Republican Gubernatorial candidate Andy McKenna’s primary election next Tuesday. So while the timing of this column may appear calculated, it is the first regularly scheduled opportunity to convey an experience that began while The Observer was on hiatus.
Direct e-mail solicitations on behalf of the McKenna/Murphy candidates began several months ago from a Notre Dame classmate of McKenna. Last fall, I mysteriously received “McKenna for Illinois” solicitations as part of their e-mail list server. To my astonishment, the campaign was using an e-mail address listed only with the Notre Dame Alumni Association … and only temporarily for two weeks while moving.
The campaign began with an innocent “fellow classmate” endorsement announcing that McKenna had become a candidate and noted reasons why classmates should provide support to him. For months now, I have been bombarded with e-mails asking for donations, reporting on McKenna’s plans and surges in the polls. I’ve been wished a “Happy New Years” (sic) — hopefully referring to both the primary and elections cycles as “years” rather than what I suspect is simply a sloppy misspelling. I also was made aware of newspaper endorsements and was even asked to participate in the Illinois Republican primary’s early voting process a few Mondays ago, although I do not believe that as a Democrat, I can participate in their party’s voting process. But then again, it is Illinois.
Therefore, the breach of ethics tale within this column is not an attempt to create an “October surprise,” an election term coined in reference to last-minute revelations the weekend before an election — the two most recent and notable affected each of George W. Bush’s presidential elections. In Bush’s first run for the presidency, it was discovered that records in Maine indicated that Bush had a driving under the influence or DUI charge. On the weekend before Bush’s reelection, Osama bin Laden released a recording criticizing both Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. In each case, though one was positive news and the other negative news, Bush weathered those surprises.
Let’s face it, McKenna family members have been elected Notre Dame student body presidents and sat at the highest levels of the University’s Board of Trustees. Their dedication to Our Lady’s campus is beyond reproach. But the inappropriate mining of Notre Dame alumni data by other Domers in support of McKenna is a breach of political ethics inexcusable for any Notre Dame graduate. The University officially bans the use of lists for solicitations, and institutes electronic limits on downloads to a maximum of 500 files. Unfortunately, the McKenna campaign circumvented those limitations which ultimately phished me into their digital campaign net.
Last Friday, at University President Fr. John Jenkins’ Washington, D.C., reception following the Right to Life March, I sat at length discussing the e-mail data breach with several University officials including those from our alumni association office. They emphasized their guiding principle of neutrality and privacy protections with all proprietary data collected from alumni. They further clarified the University’s policy to me and acknowledged that they are well aware of how McKenna supporters maneuvered around the firewall limitations. I left our discussion with the impression that the breach’s loophole had been closed once and for all.
As one who has tumbled within the rough world of campaigns and developed a thick political skin, the data breach initially in my mind was more of a campaign spam one-ups-man-ship until I heard complaints from others who considered the incident a breach of the University’s trust. Moreover, campaign tactics do not excuse or lessen the deleterious effect such digital maneuvering has within our alumni ranks. For many who leave their politics at the edge of campus, this is not just the phishing of alumni e-mail addresses. It is a break in the trust that they placed in their support for Notre Dame because they believe that they personally are being used as a commodity — good only until the candidacy of McKenna (or any other soliciting alumni) ends.
Party affiliation is not the issue regarding this data breach. Prior University service or official status is not the issue either. Regardless of whether or not McKenna personally knew of the efforts or the initiative was by rogue fellow alumni, a Notre Dame education should have taught them such values and ethics principles that they would have turned to other social media outlets or limited themselves within the University guidelines. Being given much and expecting much in return especially applies to those among us who interact with others who call Notre Dame “home.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s
administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. 

  • Jebediah

    Thanks for making fellow alumni aware of this issue.