Techman: Digital data collectors can paint complete picture of us
Share with others:
Most of us are aware that when on the Web or our cell phones, information about us and our browsing habits is being collected.
But many may not be aware who is doing the collecting and what they are doing with the information.
The number of trackers collecting data on users' activities on the 100 most popular websites in the United States has significantly increased in the last five months, according to research from the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California, Berkeley.
On those 100 sites, researchers found 6,485 standard cookies (small text files used to keep track of us on the Web) last month compared with 5,795 cookies in May. In both months, third-party trackers, not the websites themselves, were responsible for a majority of those cookies, the report said.
How information about you is gathered and used is the focus of a Senate investigation opened by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va.
Earlier this year the Federal Trade Commission recommended that Congress pass legislation giving people access to information that data brokers hold about them. Unlike credit reporting agencies, which are required by law to show people their own credit reports and allow them to correct errors, data brokers are not required to do so, according to a New York Times article.
"An ever-increasing percentage of [peoples'] lives will be available for download, and the digital footprint they will inevitably leave behind will become more specific and potentially damaging, if used improperly," Mr. Rockefeller wrote in letters to the data brokers. "It is critical that we understand what information companies like yours are already collecting and selling."
Linda A. Woolley, acting chief executive of the Direct Marketing Association trade group, told the Times the investigation was "a baseless fishing expedition."
Data collectors often defend their practices by saying that the info they collect is used to provide more relevant advertising, a boon to the consumer.
Juniper Networks' Mobile Threat Center recently analyzed more than 1.7 million apps on the Google Play market from March 2011 to September 2012. The study found that most apps track users, with free apps doing it most.
Mr. Rockefeller sent a letter to the top nine data collectors asking them to reveal their data sources and explain what's being done with the data they're collecting.
Their answers shed some light on the murky world of data collection. But the companies refused to be specific on their sources of information, citing the danger of revealing trade secrets or violating nondisclosure agreements.
The companies questioned were Acxiom, Epsilon, Equifax, Experian, Harte-Hanks, Intelius, FICO, Merkle and Meredith Corp.
The companies said the data they sell is used for finding new markets for clients, database access, "identity verification" (making sure the person is who he says he is online) and -- of course -- targeted advertising.
Data is being collected through websites or "permissioned data" -- information you voluntarily give to an app or a website, the companies replied.
The data collectors said they do notify the public about the fact their data is being collected but the notification is often on the data brokers' website rather than at the point of collection.
Acxiom replied that it receives, "various lists from the federal government, such as the Social Security Administration's Deceased Master file, the State Department Terrorist Exclusion list, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control list."
The company said its information dossiers on individuals can include date of birth/age, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, language preference, length of residence, home value, home characteristics, marital status, presence of children and number of residents in the household, education, occupation and political party.
A pretty complete picture.
Acxiom's database includes such dossiers on 500 million people, the company told The New York Times.
First Published November 18, 2012 12:00 am