Many tech firms are calling on the government to allow them to reveal how and how often the government seeks information about individuals. We ought to demand the same sort of transparency from the commercial data brokers that know much more about us than we do about them. One of the largest, Acxiom, reportedly has information on about 700 million active consumers worldwide, with some 1,500 data points per person. Such data brokers learn about us from the cookies that hitch rides as users travel online and from the social media sites where we post everything from home addresses to pictures to magazine subscriptions and store purchases, as well as deeds on file in towns and counties. They load all this data into sophisticated algorithms that spew out alarmingly personal predictions about our health, financial status, interests, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, politics and habits.
These dossiers are the reason that when I log in, I see an ad for suede boots but my son sees the release date for the latest “Call of Duty” game. This may seem benign, but increasingly our data fuel more than just what ads we are served. They may also determine what offers we receive, what rates we pay, even what jobs we get.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) provides some protections. The law requires that entities that collect information for those making employment, credit, insurance and housing decisions do so in a manner that ensures the information is accurate. The Federal Trade Commission targets firms that screen potential tenants, credit recipients, employees and insurance purchasers without complying with the law. But in an online world in which companies large and small innovate constantly and — sometimes unknowingly — push legal boundaries, it is difficult to reach all of those who may engage in activities that fall afoul of the FCRA.
Further, personal data could be — and probably are — used by firms making decisions that aren’t regulated by the FCRA but still affect users' lives profoundly. These include determinations about whether we are too risky to do business with or aren’t right for certain clubs, dating services, schools or other programs. Citizens don’t know what of our personal information is on file or how it is being used, and this frames the fundamental challenge to consumer privacy in the online marketplace: our loss of control over our most private and sensitive information.
Changing the law would help. But even without legislation, we can begin to address the problem with a comprehensive initiative to give consumers the knowledge and tools they need to reassert some control over their personal data.