Amid criticism for failing to identify the hundreds of thousands of low-dollar donors who have boosted his $600 million presidential campaign, Barack Obama has responded that it "would be a pretty hard thing for us to be able to process."
But there is much widely used and inexpensive technology that allows Republican and Democratic campaigns to sort and identify millions of donors and to highlight or exclude overseas contributors. The technology is offered by companies that complete credit card transactions, by banks that provide credit cards to customers, by telecommunications companies that maintain digital networks, and by a variety of smaller firms that track Internet activity.
Over the past week, the lack of information regarding Obama's online donations has been highlighted by John McCain's campaign and by prominent media outlets, including the Washington Post, Slate and ABC news anchor Charles Gibson. On Oct. 24, NationalJournal.com reported that Obama's campaign computers do not verify the addresses claimed by online donors.
The lack of a computerized address-verification system would allow the Obama campaign's computers to accept online donations from U.S. citizens above legal limits, and to accept donations from foreigners who are barred by law from contributing at all. Under federal law, campaigns are not required to release the name of individuals who contribute less than $200.
Asked by Gibson on Oct. 29 if he would disclose the names of his many unidentified donors, Obama said, "Look, you know, 3.1 million donors would be a pretty hard thing for us to be able to process. And we have done everything that's been asked of us under the FEC guidelines.
"These are small donors. They're ordinary folks. And the idea behind all campaign finance reform is to make sure that the public official is not bought and sold.... I may come into the White House with fewer strings attached to me than just about any presidential candidate in history."
There are few technical obstacles to sorting and identifying small-scale donors. Obama's campaign is using two of the nation's largest financial companies to process online donations, according to a New York Times story in July. They are, according to the Times, American Express, which processes daily transactions by almost 90 million cardholders worldwide, and Bank of America, which processes 3 million credit card transactions every 16 minutes, according to its 2007 annual report [PDF].
However, a five-minute phone call to Bank of America's merchant-services department showed how a campaign could sort transactions to identify any credit cards that were used to make small donations under fake names and fake addresses. The campaign could download transaction data from the bank's Web site and transfer the file into a database, such as Excel, said the Bank of America employee. "Then highlight all your transactions and click your sort button," the employee said.
Obama's fundraising far outpaces that of previous campaigns. He raised $150 million -- including $100 million in online donations -- in September. McCain's campaign cannot raise additional money because it accepted $84 million in federal funds after the GOP convention. The campaign now directs would-be donors to other GOP-affiliated sites.
Obama's September take included money from many small donors, whose names have not been released. The McCain campaign Web site displays the names and home cities of all donors. The McCain database does show some fake names, such as "Jesus II," and hundreds of small-scale anonymous donors, although campaign officials say they accept online donations only from people who submit an address that matches the billing address for their credit card.
Every organization that accepts credit cards relies on a complex financial industry to complete transactions. For example, a customer must get a credit card from a financial firm, usually a bank, which verifies the customer's identity. These cards are actually managed by a network run by a credit card processing firm, which usually is a division of a large bank. When a customer makes a purchase, the card-processing firm either affirms the transaction or denies it -- for example, if it is fraudulent.
A very large number of transactions are made every day. For example, in 2007 Bank of America processed 180,000 transactions per minute from its 59 million customers. American Express is a distinct network, where transactions of its 90 million cardholders are watched, approved, and stored by the firm's own network.
Each transaction can be recorded -- and thus stored -- by multiple parties in databases for many years. For example, complete or partial data about online purchases can be stored by the credit card firms, the vendor's accounting and marketing departments, the customer, and sometimes the customer's bank. American Express, for example, stores transaction data for seven years.
Credit card numbers provide a wealth of information to Web site operators seeking to identify incoming customers, in part because the first seven digits reveal the financial firm that issued the card. Other numbers show the country where the issuer is located. Under federal rules, donations from overseas sources require extra scrutiny.
The Internet's inner workings provide another rich source of data that can be used to sort and identify online donations.
Every device that links to the Internet has its own Internet Protocol address. For example, the IP address of johnmccain.com is 188.8.131.52, according to the Web site selfseo.com. IP addresses are assigned en-bloc to five regional organizations, which then award small blocs to Internet firms and governments. The U.S. regional organization is the American Registry for Internet Numbers, based in Chantilly, Va.
When an Internet user visits a Web site, the site's operators can usually tell what Internet firm is providing the link and what part of the world the visitor is coming from. For example, nearly all IP addresses in Europe and the Western section of the Middle East begin with "88." The system "is not perfect, but it's pretty reliable," said one person who helps manage the addressing system. Some Web sites, such as find-ip-address.org, offer this location service for free.
This addressing system allows Web site managers to exclude visitors they don't want, he said. For example, vendors who do not want to sell to customers in Latin America, he said, can exclude all IP address beginning with "200." The task is accomplished by modifying the "Access Control List" functions on a Web site's routers and firewall, he said. Commercial firms, such as Boston-based MaxMind, provide similar services to companies such as IBM, Wal-Mart and eBay, to detect and exclude suspect IP addresses.
Software code on Obama's online donations page indicates that the site recognizes the IP address of everyone who gives money. It can be viewed by selecting page source from the "view" menu on most Web browsers. The code for donate.barackobama.com includes an "ip_addr" field, which records the visitor's IP address. There is no similar software code visible in the McCain Web site, or in the Web site operated by Sen. John Kerry in 2004, but those Web sites may still record visitors' IP addresses.
The quantity of overseas donations is unclear, partly because the Obama campaign has not released the names of the sub-$200 donors. But both the Obama and McCain campaigns collected money from overseas. For example, the Obama campaign's Web site includes a French-language page, where supporters champion their donations worth a total of $38,873.11. These donations from France are legal -- if they are made by U.S. citizens or U.S. residents. These donations were highlighted by pro-McCain bloggers, and by a new site, obamashrugged.com, which focuses on investigating Obama's online contributions.
Internet service providers record the activities of their customers to better understand what their customers are interested in, to ward off hacker attacks, and to detect online traffic jams. Internet search firms also track Internet traffic to sell that information to others. For example, Google records all the search inquiries made on its Web site, and Alexa.com tracks movement through the Obama and McCain Web sites.
So far, according to San Francisco-based Alexa, 2 percent of visitors to Obama's Web site visited the donation Web page, but fewer than 1 percent of visitors to the McCain Web site opened up the campaign's donations page. Alexa also reports that 85 percent of Obama's visitors came from the United States, and 89 percent of visitors to johnmccain.com came from the United States.
However, Internet users can mask their online activities behind "anonymizers." These services provide misleading IP addresses to customers who wish to visit a Web site without being recorded. For example, on Oct. 17, this reporter hid his identity behind an anonymizer while making a $25 donation to the Obama campaign with a pre-paid gift card. The McCain Web site refused a similar donation because the gift card did not have a billing address that could be used to verify the address typed into the campaign's Web site.
Neither the McCain nor the Obama campaigns responded to requests for comment about their practices for this story.