Acxiom Lets Consumers See Data It Collects

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Aboutthedata.com, a Web site introduced on Wednesday by a leading marketing technology firm called the Acxiom Corporation, is offering individual consumers a glimpse of some of the details the company has collected about them.

Visitors who log in to the site may review many seemingly innocuous facts, such as whether someone in their household owns a dog or a cat, or is interested in jogging or biking.

Aboutthedata.com delivers a soothing message about Acxiom, a data broker that collects, stores, analyzes and sells billions of pieces of information about consumers with the aim of helping corporate clients like banks, insurers and retailers aim marketing pitches at specific audience segments.

"We have come to expect companies will make their interactions with us personal," the site says. "We no longer want to receive mass marketing -- getting bombarded with ads that have no relevancy to our lives."

Yet critics say the new consumer site omits so many details about Acxiom's data-gathering and analysis practices that it sanitizes the data mining behind data-driven marketing.

Aboutthedata.com, at least in its initial incarnation, leaves out many data elements that Acxiom markets to its corporate clients -- intimate details like whether a person is a "potential inheritor" or an "adult with senior parent," or whether a household has a "diabetic focus" or "senior needs." Without a more complete picture of industry practices, privacy advocates say, consumers cannot make informed decisions about whether to share personal information with companies.

"It does not give an accurate picture of how this works," Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer group in Washington, said of Aboutthedata.com. "The language is so innocuous that the average consumer would think there's no privacy concern."

Acxiom executives said that the initial version of the site included what it considered its core data about consumers, but that they planned to add information categories to the site on a regular basis.

For the last several years, members of Congress and federal regulators have been pressing the data brokerage industry to make its practices more transparent. Much of their criticism has focused on Acxiom, an industry leader that has amassed information on the financial means, residential status and shopping habits of a majority of adults in the United States.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report on consumer privacy that recommended that Congress pass a law requiring greater transparency for data brokers. Unlike consumer reporting agencies, which are required by federal law to give consumers free copies of their credit reports and allow them to correct errors, companies that collect marketing data are not required to show consumers information that has been collected about them.

Some regulators have warned that the industry's data-mining could be used for discriminatory practices -- such as offering elite consumers better pricing or identifying financially troubled consumers who might be susceptible to predatory lending.

Now the new site positions Acxiom as the industry leader in responding to regulators' concerns. Julie Brill, a member of the F.T.C., described the Acxiom site as "a first step down this important road towards greater transparency."

In addition to allowing consumers to view their records or to opt out of Acxiom's marketing databases, the site lets them change individual data elements in their files.

Scott E. Howe, the chief executive of Acxiom, based in Little Rock, Ark., said in an interview last week that the company wanted to give consumers greater control over their data.

"The whole role of the consumer as another voice in the equation hasn't been heard effectively by folks who deal in data until now," Mr. Howe said. If consumers en masse correct or update their Acxiom files, the company would benefit by being able to offer its corporate clients better-quality data, he said. But, he said, it could be a problem if consumers opt out in large numbers.

Aboutthedata.com received mixed reviews on its opening day. Some consumers, privacy advocates and data security specialists said that they had trouble logging in, or logged in only to find that no information was available about them. Some criticized the site's identity verification system -- which requires name, address, date of birth and the last four digits of the Social Security number -- as insufficiently secure. Others noted that, while consumers could opt out of Acxiom's marketing database, they were not given the opportunity to opt out of every Acxiom product.

"Consumers are not fully in control of their information until they can request Acxiom permanently delete their data and prevent the company from using their information for purposes other than marketing," said Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, who last year opened an investigation into data brokers including Acxiom. "I plan to continue my oversight and investigation into the data broker industry to make sure Americans know how this industry operates and consumers have power over their own information."

But mostly critics faulted the site for promoting data-driven marketing without explicitly describing some of Acxiom's more sophisticated consumer-tracking techniques. In marketing materials, for instance, Acxiom describes one of its products, called AbiliTec Digital, as a data-powered "customer recognition" service that helps companies link a customer's history with his or her name, nickname, e-mail address, home address, and mobile and landline phone numbers.

While that kind of pervasive surveillance may be useful for companies, it could also make consumers more vulnerable to pitches for products that are not necessarily good for them, said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law who studies consumer privacy. In a recent research paper on industry practices, he imagined a hypothetical obese consumer who tries to avoid snacking but receives an ad on his mobile phone from the nearest doughnut shop exactly when he is least likely to resist.

"That is a dangerous direction," Mr. Calo said, "because it starts to figure out what makes each of us vulnerable."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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