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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.

Rosenzweig concluded that nothing he found surprised him, "and the level of detail was only somewhat discomfiting. In fact, what struck me most forcefully was (to borrow a phrase from Hannah Arendt) the banality of it all."

In an interview, Rosenzweig said the depth of the data could become intrusive at some point, "but at the level I've seen, it's trivial," he said, adding that even if data brokers have incorrect information, there is little danger from it. "I think that the audit and oversight mechanisms we have in place — seen in the IRS scandal — make it (damage to individuals) unlikely to happen, and likely to be found out if it does," he said.

That, not surprisingly, is not how most privacy advocates see it. They point out that Acxiom collects 1,500 data points on hundreds of millions of people — estimates range from 190 million to 700 million — and consumers have very little control over limiting that collection or its use.

They also note that Acxiom is only one of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of firms that collect data on people. Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum (WPF), compliments Acxiom for, "a positive first step in opening this portal."

But, she said, the number of brokers is vastly more than 253. "Our estimate is approximately 4,000 industry members sector-wide," she said. "Not all of them are consumer-facing. We have a substantive report coming out about the policy issues associated with data brokers in the next month, as part of a series of reports. We are announcing this at the National Press Club next Tuesday."

And Jody Westby, CEO of Global Cyber Risk and a privacy expert, said most people don't view a flood of "relevant" ads as a favor. "Just because people browse on the Internet does not mean that they want to be bombarded with targeted information about whatever they were searching for," she said.

Besides that, the company requires anyone who wants to view their own data to provide identification through sensitive personal information including part of a Social Security number, a copy of their driver's license, a current utility bill or a check. And while it allows consumers to opt out of it from being used for marketing purposes, or to "opt out" entirely, that process is lengthy and doesn't erase the data or prevent Acxiom or any of hundreds of other data brokers from collecting it.

Westby said she didn't take Acxiom up on its offer to view her data because the authentication information the company requires is, "also used by criminals for identity theft." If the company had said it would delete the information once it had confirmed her identity, that might have helped, she said, but, "instead, they only say they will not use this information for marketing purposes — whatever that means."

 

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