Lawmakers Come Up Short in Data Broker Probe

Responses from 9 companies raise more questions

Data brokers, both online and offline, are fast becoming the latest privacy bogeymen on the Hill. But pinning down what a data broker is and determining if its consumer data collection violates consumer privacy may not be so easy.

A probe initiated in July by a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.), co-chairs of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, yielded only a partial glimpse into companies that collect, compile and sell consumers' personal information for marketing, the lawmakers said today with the release of the responses from nine companies.

"Many questions about how these data brokers operate have been left unanswered, particularly how they analyze personal information to categorize and rate consumers," the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

Of the nine companies that received letters from the group of House members, only one, Acxiom, agreed that the company could be classified as a data broker. The others included in the lawmakers' query, Epsilon (Alliance Data Systems), Equifax, Experian, Harte-Hanks, Intelius, Fair Isaac, Merkle and Meredith Corp. said they should not be considered data brokers.

Consumers are largely unaware of these companies and the data that is collected about them. Axciom told the lawmakers that over the last two years, out of the 190 million consumers on whom it has collected information, only about 150 requested access.

Many of the companies responded that they do not allow access to their consumer data because it is not identifiable by consumer.

The congressional inquiry followed a Federal Trade Commission privacy report released early this year that suggested passing legislation to give consumers more control over information collected about them.

Privacy advocates have grown increasingly concerned that companies are tracking consumers across all digital platforms and combining that information from other sources including telephone directories, financial institutions and even directly from consumers.