Direct Line Blog

Big Data, little privacy

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Star Trek's Lieutenant Commander Data
Star Trek's Lieutenant Commander Data

Remember SAT analogies? Let's  try one.


(A) fuel : car
(B) food : body
(C) hipsters : handlebar mustaches
(D) me : cat videos (check out this gem)

Consumer data is one of the core elements that makes the marketing industry go. It's a data broker's business to know everything about us—religion, age, sex, employment status, relationship status, where you went to school, income, how much money you donate to charity, political leaning, your pet preference, which magazines you subscribe to, whether or not you're in the market for a small business loan.

Brokers collect that type of information both online and offline and sell it to marketer clients and other third parties to help them retain current customers and attract new ones. It's how direct marketing has worked from time immemorial. It's what gives companies the ability to offer up targeted online advertising and direct mail pieces.

There's not much a customer does that isn't tracked, and Congress in its infinite wisdom has suddenly taken it upon itself to begin a far-reaching inquiry into whether or not brokers actually know a little too much about us.

According to The New York Times, Rep. Edward  Markey (D–Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R–Texas), cochairs of something called the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, have sent a somewhat tetchy letter to Acxiom, Epsilon, Equifax, Experian, Harte-Hanks, Intelius, FICO, Merkle, and the Meredith Corp., who, in an ironic twist, are being asked to provide quite a bit of data about themselves. The brokers and/or marketing services companies are required to provide their Congressional inquisitors with:

  • A list of entities that have provided data from or about consumers to the company;
  • a list of data items collected from or about consumers, and the methods by which it is collected;
  • products or services offered to third parties that utilize consumer data;
  • the information consumers are given access to, if it is requested, and any policies around sharing or deletion of that data; and
  • encryption or other safety protocols used to protect data.

In its letter, the caucus proclaims that data brokers have gotten a little too big for their data britches and makes them sound quite sinister, indeed: “By combining data from numerous offline and online sources, data brokers have developed hidden dossiers on almost every U.S. consumer.”

Sounds like Congress is making an analogy of its own: peeping tom : privacy :: data broker : consumer safety.

And Congress isn't the only governmental entity looking into privacy issues related to data compilation. Data broker Spokeo, Inc. settled with the Federal Trade Commission for $800,000 back in June for marketing consumer profiles to HR, recruiter and background screening companies.

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