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Step Aside, NSA: What are Private Companies Gathering About You, Then Sharing?

Critics of evolving data-brokerage companies say that the average consumer has no idea that their intimate personal details are up for sale.

by
Rodrigo Sermeño

Bio

October 14, 2013 - 12:05 am
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The Acxiom Corporation, one of the largest data-brokerage firms in the world, unveiled last month a free website where U.S. consumers can view some of the information the company has collected about them. Acxiom reportedly has information on about 700 million active consumers worldwide, which helped the company record $1.1 billion in sales last year.

The data on the site, called Aboutthedata.com, includes biographical information, like marital status and education level; homeownership status, including mortgage amount and property size; vehicle details; and economic data, like the size of portfolio investments.

Many privacy advocates have attacked Acxiom’s move, saying the information Acxiom discloses through the website is only a small sample of the data the company collects and sells. Others have warned that the site provides a new avenue for Acxiom to collect even more details about consumers by allowing them to verify and correct their profiles.

Currently, there is no comprehensive data regulation for data brokers. Certain kinds of sensitive data are protected, but most of the information can be bought and sold without any input from the individual. For example, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that companies that collect information for those making credit, insurance, and housing decisions do so in a manner that ensures the information is accurate.

Last year, the FTC issued a report on protecting consumer privacy in which they recommended that Congress consider legislation overseeing online privacy and data brokers.

Julie Brill, an FTC commissioner, penned an op-ed article in the Washington Post in August, asking data-brokerage companies to make their practices more transparent.

She said personal data could be used by firms making decisions that are not regulated by the FCRA but still affect users’ lives profoundly, including “determinations about whether we are too risky to do business with or aren’t right for certain clubs, dating services, schools or other programs.”

“Citizens don’t know what of our personal information is on file or how it is being used, and this frames the fundamental challenge to consumer privacy in the online marketplace: our loss of control over our most private and sensitive information,” Brill said.

In November 2012, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.), requested information from nine major data brokers about their policies and practices. The probe yielded only a partial glimpse into the industry.

“Many questions about how these data brokers operate have been left unanswered, particularly how they analyze personal information to categorize and rate consumers,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

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Rodrigo is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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Being the target of marketing means lots of people want a little bit of your time. Most consumers hate the many interruptions. Consumers can fight back by corrupting the data whenever possible. For example, add different fake apartment numbers to your home address to track who is selling your contact info. Never ever give a business your cell phone number. Think about how to make your data unmarketable. Told Yahoo I was a 100 year old miner in Alaska, for example. Think about when it's better to pay cash. I don't use credit cards at the bar. If you want to give to a charity like the Red Cross, donate through Lowe's. That way you get a receipt for taxes without getting on the charity sucker list for life. Set your browser to automatically flush the cache and delete cookies, flash cookies, and history every time you close it. I like the combination of Firefox with Adblock Plus.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Rodrigo:

You need someone with an understanding of data-driven marketing to explain a few things to you. With this article you are carrying water for the online privacy movement, which is mostly populated by the left.

I can help: Maxmagill_at_yahoo.com
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A secret is something only you know. You should assume that anything that gets online is widely known.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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