Consumers seek ways to avoid data mining

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Americans who believe their charitable contributions, political affiliation or the number of credit card transactions they made in the past 13 months are private matters were delivered a cold dose of reality this month.

About two weeks ago, a Little Rock, Ark.-based data analytics and software company unveiled a website that allows consumers to take a firsthand look at the types and scope of online personal data that have been collected about them.

And there's a lot.

Acxiom, which performs services ranging from online and offline marketing to scanning electronic data to help authorities find criminals, manages more than 32 billion consumer and business data records updated monthly.

Through its AboutTheData.com project, Acxiom is lifting the curtain between online consumers and the third party vendors who compile digital portraits of each and every one of them -- one megabyte at a time.

Consumers who want to check it out have to enter some personal information -- name, address, birth date, email address and the last four digits of a Social Security number -- and then they are directed to a portal that allows them to access educational, financial and personal information that has been attached to the account.

They'll see what the data manager believes is their education level; their political affiliation; whether they own a home; what kind of car they drive -- whether it's a 2010 Mercedes sedan or a 2000 Ford pickup truck; how much money is coming into their household; how often they use credit cards to buy stuff; and even whether they lean to the left or right of the political spectrum.

Made a donation to the Tea Party? The Coffee Party? The Green Party? It's in there.

To get its picture of individual Americans, the company site says it draws from all sorts of places where people have either done something that goes in the public record or have agreed to share a little information.

That includes collecting public records, surveys and questionnaires, website directories and postings, property records and data from online companies that have alerted consumers that their information will be used for marketing purposes.

Consumers who pull up their own profile on AboutTheData.com have the option to correct any mistakes found in their personal profiles, or to opt out of the company's online advertising products and its marketing and directory list.

Acxiom CEO Scott Howe said the portal has been in the works for several years and the current beta version will be updated depending on user feedback.

"After 40-plus years of advocating for the responsible use of consumer data, we're now taking our first step in establishing a direct relationship with consumers and plan to grow the site and its capabilities over time," Mr. Howe said in a press release.

The increased transparency comes at a time when Americans are increasingly pushing back against digital tracking, which has become a much bigger issue in recent years as more things go online.

The Pew Research Center survey "Anonymity, Privacy and Security Online," released Sept. 5, shows that 86 percent of adult Internet users have taken steps to avoid surveillance; 55 percent have sought to avoid surveillance by specific people, organizations or government entities; and 50 percent are worried about the amount of personal information that's available online.

Sixty-four percent of respondents said they clear cookies and browser histories to avoid detection, and a surprising 14 percent said they go as far as encrypting email and using virtual networks that disguise IP addresses to duck surveillance.

The Acxiom project hasn't won over those concerned about the issue of privacy.

John Simpson, privacy project director of Washington D.C.-based Consumer Watchdog, said AboutTheData.com provides some transparency but is ultimately an attempt to avoid government regulation.

"What's really crystal clear to me is that their motivations in doing this is not anything particularly beneficial to the consumer. They did it because the whole data [collection] industry is finally being scrutinized by consumers and it's a bid to avoid regulators."

He believes a comprehensive do-not-track law, which would provide government enforcement for consumer's requests not to be tracked online, is the best way to approach the issue of privacy. Currently, several Web browsers are equipped to tell sites when a user does not wish to be tracked but there is no law requiring websites to obey those instructions.

Michelle De Mooy, a senior associate for national priorities with Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Action, said the new website creates a Catch-22 in the sense that, in order for customers to correct or delete their personal data, they must first provide even more detailed personal data.

She said several initiatives geared toward government-enforced do-not-track regulations have stalled in the legislature and an attempt by the World Wide Web Consortium to create a standard do-not-track mechanism suffered a similar fate.

With government-enforced privacy standards still a pipe dream, Ms. De Mooy said education is the best bet for privacy protection. Consumer Action's new website, RespectMyDNT.org, is an attempt to give consumers a general idea of how prevalent tracking has become, as well as offering options to avoid tracking and means of contacting legislators to promote do-not-track laws.

"We felt it was the right time to launch a project taps into this public awareness and encourages consumers to learn about and get involved in the issues around DNT," Ms. De Mooy said in a press release.

"After all, they've told us repeatedly that they want the ability to control tracking and this is one way to do it."

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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