This month, a strongly worded Washington Post op-ed by Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill calling for transparency in the business practices of the online data broker industry provoked a heated response.
While the ACLU and other privacy advocates have long had their suspicions about how and why data brokers were tracking individuals, as the commissioner stated in her op-ed:
It took the NSA revelations to make concrete what this exchange means: that firms, governments or individuals, without our knowledge or consent, can amass large amounts of private information about people to use for purposes we don’t expect or understand.
Clearly displeased with the link to the NSA scandal, Linda Woolley—CEO and president of the Direct Marketing Association—fired back with an open letter to the commissioner. In the letter Woolley attacks the commissioner, claiming she disregards the benefits of data collection and unfairly demonizes the entire industry. But the commissioner is right to focus on the data broker industry’s troubling practices.
Interestingly, that massive, secret databases of individuals are being created and sold is not the issue under debate. That’s a simple and open matter of fact. For example:
- One aggregator, PeekYou, boasts, “Our patented technology analyzes content from over sixty social sites, news sources, homepages and blog platforms and identifies the actual people behind it, combining their scattered digital footprints into a comprehensive record of their online identity.”
- RapLeaf advertises as having “Real-Time Data on 80% of U.S. Emails.”
- Brill points out that one of the largest such aggregators, Acxiom, reportedly has information on about 700 million active consumers worldwide, with some 1,500 data points per person.
The excellent Wall Street Journal series, What They Know, provides a feel for what these databases can mean for people. One story was about Linda Twombly, a 67-year-old woman who, when surfing the Internet, was flooded with ads for Republican candidates leading up to the 2010 primary elections. The Journal revealed that RapLeaf Inc had a profile on her that included her full name and identified her as a conservative who was interested in Republican politics and the Bible, and donated to political and environmental causes. “Holy smokes,” she said. “It is like a watchdog is watching me, and it is not good.” The Journal found that RapLeaf’s profiles included such sensitive information as a person’s household income range, age range, and political leaning; the gender and age of children in the household; and personal interests in topics including religion, the Bible, gambling, tobacco, adult entertainment, and “get rich quick” offers. In all, RapLeaf segmented people into more than 400 categories.