Data Miners: What Do They Really Know About Us? We May Soon Find Out

Data Miners: What Do They Really Know About Us? We May Soon Find Out
Want to know what Acxiom, Intelius, Epsilon, and other huge data miners know about you? I know I do. And so does the US Congress – or, at least, the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus.

According to the New York Times, the Caucus just sent letters to nine of the largest data collectors on and off the Internet – including credit reporting agencies like Experian and Equifax and credit scoring companies like Fair Isaac. (Full disclosure: One of the companies being questioned is Meredith Corporation, a major US magazine publisher for whom I occasionally write.)

Per the Times:

The letter asked each company to provide a list of all of its sources of data; a list of the specific kinds of consumer information, including ethnic, race or religious data, it collects; descriptions of the data collection methods used, like tracking of social network or mobile phone activity; explanations about each product and service the company has marketed to third parties since January 2009, and the type of data used in such products and services; details about whether any of the products or services are federally regulated; explanations about the security measures used to protect consumer data; as well as descriptions of the opt-out, data access, correction and deletion options the company offers consumers.

This group, lead by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Representative Joe Barton (R-Tex), is the same one responsible for the revelations two weeks ago about how often law enforcement agencies request subscriber data from wireless companies – at least 1.3 million times last year alone.

I anticipate similarly eye opening numbers from this request, assuming the data brokers comply. Since the committee doesn’t have subpoena power, the companies could ignore the letters – though I suspect they’d rather comply via letter than be called before Congress for a starring role on C-Span.

Data Miners: What Do They Really Know About Us? We May Soon Find Out
Interestingly, the New York Times’ Natasha Singer recently tried to obtain much of the same information directly from Acxiom, one of the hugest data miners on the planet, but was rebuffed. Acxiom collects this data and shares it with its corporate clients, but feels no obligation to share it with the people whose data it is collecting.

The biggest problem isn’t the data collection, per se – though that is a huge problem. The bigger problem is what happens as a result of the data that is collected: the inferences these companies draw from that data, which may not be at all accurate but could still have a huge impact on our lives.

Just as companies like Fair Isaac compile disparate bits of your financial data, toss it into a proprietary algorithm, and come up with your credit score -- which then determines whether you qualify for a mortgage, among other things -- data miners could do the same with your Tweets, Facebook posts, comments, purchases, and Web surfing histories. They could come up with scores for ranking your hireability, marketability, likelihood of filing an insurance claim, political or religious leanings, and so on. There is no limit to what some clever corporate entity could do with this information.

Data Miners: What Do They Really Know About Us? We May Soon Find Out
At this point in time, all of that happens invisibly, in the background, without anyone outside the data mining industry (and The Wall Street Journal) really paying much attention. The Congressional letters are a way to open Pandora’s box and see what’s inside.

It should be noted that most of these companies already must follow some kind of Federal rules for disclosure – usually the Fair Credit Reporting Act or the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act. But those laws predate things like Google, Facebook, Twitter and the advent of Big Data, all of which change the privacy landscape enormously.

We need, at the very least, complete transparency into all of this data. As consumers, we also need the right to control it and correct it as needed, and even make a buck or two off of it.

It is our data, after all.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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