How to find out what the data miners know about you


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A funny thing happened last week while I was across the pond at IFA Berlin 2013, snarfing bratwurst and playing with wicked-cool electronics: Acxiom opened the kimono and showed us its data bits.

On September 4, the biggest name in data aggregation that most people have never heard of, let alone are able to pronounce, unveiled AboutTheData, a portal that lets consumers log in and see what marketers think they know about you. That Acxiom was working on a consumer data portal was first noted by Financial Times reporter Emily Steel last April and mentioned here at TY4NS as well.

Regular readers will remember that back in May I interviewed Jennifer Barrett Glasgow, chief privacy officer for Acxiom, who denied that her employer was actively working on a data portal for consumers. Well, so much for that. Apologies to my readers and to Emily Steel for suggesting otherwise. Shame on Acxiom for not being honest with me.

About AboutTheData’s data

The portal itself is not a huge leap forward in transparency, but it’s a step in the right direction.

To access your data, you have to surrender your name, address, email, phone number, and the last four digits of your social security number. Acxiom collects this, it says, in order to verify that you are really you and not someone pretending to be you. Once you’re in, you can peruse data in six categories:

This sounds more exciting than it really is (assuming, of course, that looking at your marketing data gets you warm and wiggly in the first place). As with other data aggregators like BlueKai and Exelate that have opened up their cookie data for public consumption, it’s mostly just a list of categories marketers think you might fit into, based on your Web surfing habits, offline purchases, surveys, and public records data that Acxiom has amassed.

Also, as usual, the data was sometimes spot on and other times wildly inaccurate. For example, it got my gender and marital status correct, but decided my surname is Asian (it’s Irish, thank you very much), that I had attended grad school (nope), and that I’m registered as a Democrat (I’m an independent, g-dammit). My homeowner info was pretty accurate, but my personal financials were way off. It had no info about my car whatsoever.

Overall, my data was pretty sparse – I hate shopping, and tend to opt out early and often from data collection. So I also logged in as my lovely wife (shhhh, don’t tell her), who is to shopping the way Homer Simpson is to donuts. When it comes to online bargain hunting she’s got ninja skills. Not surprisingly, Acxiom had amassed a lot more data about her, including total dollars spent online and off, number of purchases, average price paid, types of things she buys, kinds of stores where she shops, etc.  Here’s a portion of that data:

I’m pretty sure this is a gross underestimate. I’d add a zero to almost every number they had.

This info is mostly harmless, but not entirely. In the Household Interests category Acxiom had pegged my wife as “interested in smoking/tobacco products,” which she most definitely is not.

Of course, we’ve told our health insurance company that neither of us smoke. So what happens when our insurer buys data from a broker like Acxiom that says otherwise? Who are they going to believe? They’re probably going to believe the source that allows them to charge a higher premium. The same goes for categories like “Low-Fat Cooking,” “Health/Medical,” and “Dieting/Weight Loss.”

I corrected the tobacco mistake. Afterward, the Household Interests category looked like this:

Not false, merely “(Was: True).” Like she used to smoke, but recently quit. Or she decided to lie about it. Any way you look at it, it’s weird.

Data be the day

The purpose of AboutTheData is to allow you to review your information, correct any bits they got wrong, and select which categories of marketing you would like to receive, if any. The real truth is that Acxiom is trying to get consumers to clean its data for free. That’s fine. Better than keeping us all in the dark about what they think they know about us.

You can also use links on the site to opt out of Acxiom marketing entirely. You’ll have to fill out a form providing all the names you are known by, as well as any email addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses a marketer might use to contact you.

I strongly urge you to opt out. Do it now, I’ll wait. In a couple of weeks, Acxiom plans to announce a new service for marketers that will make the reasons for opting out even more compelling. Stay tuned for further developments.

This story, "How to find out what the data miners know about you" was originally published by ITworld.

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