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Data brokers' collection of internet activity data raises privacy issues

Taylor Armerding | Nov. 8, 2013
Some find the data collected on them amusing or even boring, but privacy advocates say there is good cause to worry.

Everybody who spends much time on the web knows their activities are tracked for marketing purposes. Do a little online shopping for hats, and you will quickly see ads for hats popping up on other websites you visit.

But, the collection of individual data by so-called Big Data brokers goes well beyond your online shopping. Those companies — there were 253 of them as of this past March, according to a directory compiled by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse — collect and sell information to marketers on everything from your marital status, whether you might be pregnant or have a newborn, have cancer, are trying to lose weight, are gay or straight, how much you make, what credit cards you use, your lines of credit, where you live, what your house cost, what kind of car you drive or if you might be looking to buy a new one, your race, occupation, political leanings, education level, have one or more children in college, have pets to what your hobbies are and more — much more.

The cliché is that data brokers know more about you than you know about yourself.

But this, according to those brokers, is a very good thing for you, the consumer. One major broker, Acxiom, which has been very much in the news over the past month for allowing consumers to view a portion of the data it collects on them through a new portal — — is using that higher visibility to assure people that not only is this collection harmless, but it also brings them a host of economic and other benefits.

The company did not respond to a request for an interview, but Rochelle Sherman, writing on Acxiom's blog, contended that one major benefit is that online advertising is much less irritating — free of "full-page pop ups and big flashing ads." When "responsible, data-driven marketers" use big data effectively, "the experience doesn't feel creepy or intrusive — it fits into our lives," she wrote.

The results of more and more data, she said, include lower prices, free online content, advertising that is much more relevant to individuals, quicker and easier transactions, niche products you might not otherwise be able to find and "what you want when you want it."

Well, perhaps. Some of those who have taken Acxiom up on its offer to look at what the company has collected on them have come away both bemused and bored. Paul Rosenzweig, founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security, is one of them.

In a post for New Republic, Rosenzweig said he found Acxiom's information on him, "interesting, illuminating, and mundane." In some cases, he wrote, the data were wildly inaccurate — it said he had spent only $1,898 in past two years. It got his ethnic heritage and a number of other things wrong.


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