SACRAMENTO — The leaders of the California Nurses Association had barely wrapped up a news conference recently slamming GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman when they learned Whitman's campaign had been watching them the whole time.
A volunteer for the Republican had sneaked into the event held at the union's downtown Oakland headquarters and sent live streaming video back to the campaign nearly 50 miles away in Cupertino. Within hours, Whitman aides were blasting to supporters an e-mail response to the event that featured clandestine video snippets.
"I wonder who it was," union Co-President Deborah Anne Burger said after learning about the Whitman spy. "How did they get in?"
More people than ever are asking themselves the same question this election year as the time-honored practice of campaign tracking goes viral, thanks to new technology such as video-enabled smart phones and sophisticated streaming software.
While political campaigns used to take hours to review and comment on video shot by their spies, the turnaround has become nearly instantaneous this year.
That means a politician's gaffe can be seen by thousands of people online within minutes of it happening. It also means a tracker can be anyone with a cell phone, rather than a camcorder.
During a recent talk by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, for example, Whitman's spokesmen were watching a live feed of the speech and blasting e-mail responses to his comments even as the event was under way.
The Whitman campaign has broken new ground by using tools such as Ustream and iPhones to transmit live video from trackers.
"This has become a fundamental operation for every campaign across the country," said Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei. "In fact, Jerry Brown Inc. has been tracking Meg for months. Our campaign is using technology to distribute information from public events in a more efficient way."
Such innovations prompted the Democratic National Committee last week to launch what it dubbed its Accountability Project, which invites supporters all over the country to record Republican candidates' public events and send in their video.
An invitation on the project's website reads, "If you have a video camera of any kind, or even a cell phone that records video, you can document Republican candidate public events, including speeches, forums and public meetings to share."
Recently uploaded clips include one of Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele apparently doubting the likelihood of a U.S. victory in Afghanistan, saying, "That's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan."
DNC spokesman Frank Benenati said the project was simply meant to keep Republicans honest.
"Our politics is poisoned with misinformation, lies and doublespeak, and the Accountability Project is a volunteer platform to document Republican candidates and their statement as well as their campaign tactics," Benenati said.
The watershed moment for such online video happened four years ago when U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., was recorded calling an Indian American tracker "macaca," which was widely seen as a racial slur. Thousands saw the video, and Allen lost his Senate race that year amid the controversy.
"With shrinking newsrooms and the press corps getting smaller in the state, it's not a given that every event is going to get covered," said Jeremy Thompson, who tracked Whitman's events during the first half of the year for the Democratic Governors Association. "Fast Internet connections and services let you get your good stuff back to headquarters quickly."
Such espionage has sparked some pushback from candidates such as Brown, who complained in a radio interview Thursday, "Everywhere I go, (Whitman) has one of her little kind of unidentifiable gnomes that have their iPhone, and they pop it up and they put it up on their Internet."
Brown's campaign also deploys volunteer trackers at some Whitman events, said Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina has even made it a habit of pointing out trackers sent by her Democratic rival, Sen. Barbara Boxer, during public events.
Conservative blogger Jon Fleischman said the political world is simply witnessing the same technology-fueled push for "gotcha" moments and public embarrassment that already dominates celebrity and entertainment news.
And as the DNC is proving, the viral moments don't come just from official trackers anymore.
"At this point, the No. 1 rule is if you're saying anything, you have to assume it's being broadcast on the Internet," Fleischman said. "It doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing."