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

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.