AN FRANCISCO — At the end of an alley on a nondescript street, a political consulting firm with the unusual name of Aristotle International has compiled the nation's largest voter databank, the names of 150 million Americans registered to vote. And it is selling them to politicians like George W. Bush, Joseph I. Lieberman and John McCain in ways that many fear removes too much privacy from the voting booth.
Want to contact Democrats in your district between the ages of 45 and 55, who have Hispanic names, children, own their homes and annual incomes of more than $75,000? That's possible. What about sending a personalized letter to Republican women, in a specific precinct, older than 65 who have made campaign contributions and voted in at least three primaries? "No problem," according to Aristotle's advertising.
How about reaching the rich? Aristotle's "Fat Cat" list of wealthy donors can turn "your personal computer into a proven fund-raising machine" and "raise more money than you ever thought possible."
With promises like that, it is not surprising Aristotle, which was started in 1983 by two brothers with the same middle name, has a client list that reads like a political convention: 45 senators, more than 200 members of the House, 46 Republican and Democratic state parties, and most major presidential candidates this year except Al Gore, whose campaign said it would not hire any firm whose practices could jeopardize the public's privacy.
Of particular concern this election season, when electronic privacy has become a significant issue, is Aristotle's ability to help transmit "pop- up" campaign advertisements to specific voters using the Internet.
"They are one of the first companies to fully exploit the use of technology in the political system," said William Dal Col, a Republican strategist and manager of the New York Senate campaign of Rick A. Lazio, who is not an Aristotle client. "They found a niche and exploited it dramatically. They built a database and made it readily accessible. And they market, market, market it."
For nearly two decades, John Aristotle Phillips and Dean Aristotle Phillips have been collecting voter registration lists from states, towns and counties. While this information is public, it is not always easy to obtain — located on ledgers or computers in town halls, state office buildings or county courthouses, each with different hours and different rules of access.
As a result of the brothers' persistence, Aristotle now has the nation's largest repository of registered voters, including their names, addresses, telephone numbers, party affiliation and frequency of voting. Aristotle blends this data with information from other sources — the Internet and commercial vendors that sell personal data — to provide office- seekers with even more detailed voter profiles, including information about their cars, ethnicity, incomes, employers and up to 25 other factors.
In Wisconsin, for instance, where public voter lists do not include a person's party affiliation, Aristotle can make that information available. And any Congressional candidate can use Aristotle's software to find out if any donor has inadvertently given more than the $1,000 allowed.
And Aristotle's databank can help place candidates' advertisements that pop up, as if by magic, on the computer screens of some voters.
For campaigns pressed for time and worried about cash, such precise information is golden, enabling them to identify potential supporters and not waste money on the unswayable. In some ways, Aristotle's voter lists simply provide a modern version of the information that office-seekers have long used to get out the vote.
"It's not the database; it's the data," said Steve Grubbs, a former official of Steve Forbes's presidential campaign. "If I want to talk to retirees in Alabama who are registered to vote, I'd go to Aristotle first. If I wanted soccer moms who are registered Republican, I'd go there. Lots of states don't keep their voter files very well. Aristotle does this a lot better than the government."
But information that makes for good business or could be useful in politics concerns privacy advocates, especially when it begins to pull back the curtain of one of the most protected locations in America, the voting booth. Privacy advocates say this scrutiny of the electorate has brought a Big Brother aspect to politics; many fear that if citizens feel their privacy is being invaded by voting and donating to campaigns, they may stop going to the polls.
Moreover, the combination of the information available on the Internet with voter lists creates a potent stew of data that voters may not even know exists.
"We're concerned," said Ari Schwartz, an analyst at Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington nonprofit group. "And we are especially concerned when we are talking about voting and citizenship, things that are so central to the election process."
John Aristotle Phillips, the company's chief executive, declined to comment, citing a pending public offering of the company's stock. But he provided access to the company's offices and promotional literature. At the office, a rah-rah attitude was pervasive among a youthful staff. A hand-written sign offered a daily update of voters in the firm's databank: at the time, 150,811,187.
Drawing on state motor vehicle registrations, the Postal Service and Census Bureau, among other sources, the Aristotle databank includes a person's age, sex, telephone number, party affiliation and estimated income, whether he or she rents or owns a home, has children, and has an ethnic surname. It also provides the make and model of voters' cars, whether they are campaign donors, their employer and occupation, and how often they vote. A dollar sign pops up next to the name of a voter identified as a "Fat Cat."
"As more and more voting information becomes electronic, the ability to cross-match that information with other data and build a voter profile becomes easier," said Robert Arena, a Republican strategist and webmaster for Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "Some people are finding it disturbing."
Equally, if not more, troubling to privacy advocates is Aristotle's recent foray into the advertisements that pop up when voters surf the Web. Since the advertisements appear only on the computer screens of potential supporters, they require an intimate knowledge of an individual's Web-surfing habits.
For instance, with the deadline for getting on the ballot for the Virginia primary only 10 days away, the McCain campaign hired Aristotle to send Internet advertisements to registered Virginia Republicans. When a potential voter went online, if he were a positive match with an Aristotle list, a McCain banner advertisement would appear inviting him to sign and circulate a McCain petition.
"It was effective in getting McCain on the ballot," said Max Fose, the campaign's Internet manager. "We needed to pull out the stops."
Aristotle charged about $5,000 for the project, Mr. Fose said.
In Aristotle's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission for its upcoming stock offering, it says it takes data only from public records and "standard commercially available" data sellers. It adds that its database "does not contain information of a confidential nature."
Aristotle, which has not set a date for the offering, also said it did not use hidden tracking systems, or cookies, that could collect data on the Web behavior of those who see its clients' advertisements. Use of such devices, which track Web visits, has been criticized by privacy advocates and government regulators as a hidden intrusion into private behavior.
Still, privacy concerns have caused two big Internet players to scuttle plans to enter ventures with Aristotle. In the last year, Microsoft and America Online backed away from proposals by Aristotle to mesh its voter data with information Internet users give to Microsoft and America Online when registering to go online. The venture would have made it easier for Aristotle to place Internet advertisements and would have provided the company with millions of e-mail addresses.
In fact, America Online and Microsoft each recently enacted policies prohibiting combining data about voter registration with information collected from their users.
"There's a backlash when it comes to mixing this data," said Cyrus Krohn, director of political advertising for Microsoft.
Aristotle is also raising eyebrows with its "California Gold Rush" and "Fat Cat" databases of campaign donors because it is illegal to sell Federal Election Commission data, which is available to the public free, for commercial purposes. But Ian Sturton, a commission spokesman, said, "If someone thinks there is a violation, they can file a complaint." No one has.
Moreover, to protect itself, Aristotle requires all candidates using its services to sign a statement saying they will not use the information for illegal purposes.
"Federal election data cannot be used for commercial purposes, but no one has ever challenged it," said Trevor Potter, a former federal election commissioner. "These are some fuzzy areas, and no one has really pushed the edges of it."
When it comes to selling contributor lists, Aristotle's gushy advertisements either warm the hearts of politicians looking for cash or are examples to advocates of campaign finance reform of what is wrong with the system.
The company's promotional material offers breathless come-ons: "Hit your opponent in the Wallet! Using Fat Cats, you can ferret out your adversary's contributors and slam them with a mail piece explaining why they shouldn't donate money to the other side. This technique is 100 percent legal and especially effective in rough primary battles.
"You'll be amazed!" the material continues. "Upon viewing Fat Cats for the first time, even the most hardened political pros react with awe. Party bosses and seasoned politicians who think they `have seen it all' can't get enough of Fat Cats."
Aristotle is looking for fat cats, too. The company, whose revenues doubled to $3.9 million last year from $1.7 million in 1997, has yet to turn a profit. High costs — including a hiring spree and heavy advertising — have caused Aristotle to rack up losses, $1.9 million for 1999 and $2.8 million for the first half of this year.
Aristotle wants to sell stock to raise $20 million to $28 million. How would the money be used? According to its S.E.C. filings, to get more voter names and more information about them.