Wednesday, December 19, 2012

FTC to take a hard look at data brokers, issues subpoenas to nine companies

Consumers may one day need to have access to reports that data brokers collect and resell about them, based on web-surfing habits, according to a Business Day story by Natasha Singer in the New York Times on Wednesday, December 19, 2012. The Federal Trade Commission has issued administrative subpoenas to up to nine data brokerage companies.

The link to the story by Natasha Singer is here

One of these companies is “Acxiom” in Little Rock. AR (link), not to be confused with a public relations firm “Axicom”.  When I worked for Univac, I worked at an account in northern New Jersey in the early 1970s called “Axicom” as part of ‘Transport Data”.  I don’t know if that company is related to either of these now, but I thought that the company collected consumer data.  A couple of other companies are eBureau in St. Cloud, MN (interesting to me because I lived nearby in the Twin Cities for six years), and Inttelius. In Bellevue WA, which sells background reports on people.  PeekYou also analyzes social media “sentiment”.

By and large, many of these companies collect data more on purchasing habits, surfing, and consumption, rather than on trying to analyze the nature of level of someone’s postings on social media, but the latter possibility is obviously on the table in the minds of some people.

“Do not track” could of course inhibit data collection from companies.  Let me note another oddity:  On a few sites (such as CNN and MLB), one of my Windows 7 computers  (converted from Vista) halts for thirty seconds or so to start another service, and it seems to related to tracking ads that I see.  I don’t experience this problem in a Mac environment.  In a mobile environment (I have a Verizon Motorola Droid), a few sites (such as NFL) disrupt my browsing (checking scoreboards) with requests for surveys or ads to view.  I suppose that if I went along with it, data would be collected.  Sports sites seem especially prone to this behavior.

Consumers might find that not only are offers sent them affected, vendors might treat them disparagingly.  Insurance companies could charge higher rates or refuse them, and the same, say, for prospective landlords, or even employers.  This idea could be particularly ominous if it spread to analyzing someone’s social media presence (such as volume of postings in relation to followers or friends, or use or privacy settings).  The FTC might well pay attention to this possibility. But it now seems that "hidden online reputation" can invoke consumption and surfing habits as well as posting activity. 

How could all of this affect college and high school students?

The FTC has its own press release on the issue, here

Here is a hearing by Rep. ED Markey (D-MA), with his owns story on data brokers here

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