Do you know what Big Data knows about you? 03 June 2014

Data brokers use the staggering amount of information in a variety of ways, including helping clients target consumers with ads and offers based on their perceived interests

If you weren’t worried before about what information big data companies have tracked and stored about you, you might definitely worry after reading a new report released earlier this week by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

While it’s not exactly fresh news that companies track consumer behaviour across multiple platforms (think online and in retail stores) some of the details in the FTC report, which analysed the practices of nine data companies, should make any consumer sit up and take notice. Data brokers use the staggering amount of information (one data broker’s database included 1.4 billion consumer transactions and one had 3,000 data segments for nearly every US consumer) in a variety of ways, including helping clients target consumers with ads and offers based on their perceived interests.

Here are some highlights of the findings:

Data brokers collect consumer data from a wide variety of commercial, government and publicly available sources largely without consumers’ knowledge. They also obtain data from each other, making it all very hard for consumers to determine where the information came from. The information can range from a simple name and address to a consumer’s weight, or even if they like to gamble. (Hmm, could it be that data brokers know more about you than even your own spouse?)

They infer all sorts of things about consumers from the information they collect. Some of these inferences may be untrue, and could lead to consumers receiving only certain targeted advertisements such as for sub-prime loans, instead of ads for loan products that have lower interest rates. In another example, a consumer could be deemed by an insurer as engaging in risky behaviour and have to pay higher premiums or denied coverage because other data shows the consumer is a “Biker Enthusiast.”

They like to nickname consumers. You could be pegged simply a “Dog Owner” or something more exotic like “Urban Scramble” or “Mobile Mixer” (both of which refer to low-income Latinos and African-Americans). There is also “Rural Everlastings” (hello single men and women over the age of 66 with low net worth and education levels.)

It is definitely not easy to opt out of data collection. That’s because consumers have to go to a bunch of different data brokers sites, if they can even determine who is tracking them, to opt out and often the opt out language is confusing.

There is a gold mine of specific information about you out there stored on huge databases, making the databases an enticing target for hackers. And often the data is stored for years. Can you say major security risk?

“Many of these findings,” said the report, “point to a fundamental lack of transparency about data broker industry practices.” (That might be a huge understatement.)
To be fair, there is a plus side to some of this data collection. For example, a company will send you a coupon for your favourite perfume or you can use one of the people search sites fuelled by the data to connect with old friends.

But consumers need better protections and the FTC is joining a growing number of consumer advocates calling on (well, it did already raise the issue in a 2012 report) Congress to enact legislation that would enable consumers to learn of the activities of data brokers and provide them with reasonable access to the information. Until then, remember, Big Data is watching you.


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