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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.

And Acxiom's move toward partial transparency — only allows consumers to see "summary" information on them — draws little praise and much criticism from an organization like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Adi Kamdar, an activist at EFF, wrote recently on the EFF blog that he thinks Acxiom, "is trying to ward off federal privacy regulations by flaunting transparency — a diluted term, in this case — around user data."

In an interview, Kamdar said while the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) restricts the sale of such information, "for purposes of employment, insurance, etc., which include notice requirements, data brokers usually get around this by stating in their terms of service that their customers cannot use such information for the purposes protected by the FCRA, or they offer specific employment background check services."

David Jacobs, consumer protection counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), called Acxiom's new portal, "a step in the right direction, but it's important to understand how limited it is. Acxiom is only one data broker out of hundreds, and data brokers are only one class of businesses that track consumers."

Jacobs said some people may be amused or relieved at how inaccurate their profile data is, but, "as profiles become increasingly integrated into decision making, those inaccuracies will impact more than simply the type of ads you receive."

Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) agrees. She said her profile on Acxiom was wrong about a number of things, "but worst of all, they think I am a plus-size woman's apparel buyer. I am a petite size. Who knows what kind of assumptions can be made about me if they think I may be overweight?"

Grant said the point is that this information, especially when it is acquired by organizations like health care providers, government and law enforcement, can be used for much more than marketing.

"Even if it was accurate information it would be scary, because none of it directly indicates that you are up to no good," she said. "Just as with stopping and frisking black people with no probable cause, it is unfair to tag people as potentially bad actors with no evidence, based on profiling."

Dixon agrees, saying her organization is much less concerned about ads than about, "eligibility issues and changes in offers and opportunities — or the lack thereof — that impact quality of life and/or life opportunities. Will I get luxury car-level kinds of opportunities based on my habits, or will I get a clunker car level of opportunity presented to me based on my habits — as perceived by a data broker?" she said.


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