TrustedID Poll Adds to Controversy Surrounding Online Data Brokers

By Cameron Scott 

data brokers, privacy, consumer data, social networkingA study [pdf] released Monday by TrustedID found that 80 percent of respondents did not have a clear idea of how their consumer data is collected and managed by data brokers.

Eighty percent also thought there should be a centralized online location where consumers could manage the information data brokers gather about them. No such site currently exists. Three-quarters thought they should be informed of the data collected about them.

The study, which polled almost 3,000 Americans who had set snail mail preferences with the Catalog Choice service, adds to mounting controversy about the multi-billion dollar data brokering industry.

In July, the House Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, chaired by Edward Markey (D-Mass.), sent inquiry letters to nine data companies seeking more information about how they collect, assemble and sell consumer information to third parties. The lawmakers were particularly concerned about privacy and transparency. The companies included Acxiom, Equifax, Experian, Intelius, FICO and Meredith Corp.

Their responses will be released “soon,” according to Rep. Markey’s office.

Data brokers compile elaborate consumer profiles that include not just basic demographic but buying habits, health concerns, political and religious affiliations and estimated net worth, according to Markey’s office and privacy expert Sarah Downey, with Abine privacy software company.

“They get [information] from offline sources you can’t control, like drivers’ licenses and birth certificates, and things you voluntarily give out, like Facebook photos, supermarket rewards cards, and warranties,” Downey said.

“Data brokers are collecting and selling from sources like your marriage license to your loyalty shopping programs to your DMV registration. When they sell this information and combine it with online data (a process called ‘data enhancement’), a complete picture of your life, both online and offline, digital and real-world, emerges,” Downey said.

Abine has also conducted polling on data brokering with results even more dramatic than those in TrustedID report. Of 1,000 U.S. adults on mTurk last month, Abine said, 95 percent said they thought that people should be able to remove their personal information from data broker websites.