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    Atlantic: Why Can’t Americans Find Out What Big Data Knows About Them?

    The Atlantic takes a look at what data brokers and marketers know about individuals,  how that information can be used for targeted behavioral advertising, and how little individuals know about what the companies are doing. The Atlantic’s story comes as the Federal Trade Commission recently issued a report, “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability” (pdf) that details the information that the data broker industry collects on individuals and sells to various entities. The Atlantic reports:

    In the United States, there’s not much we can do to find out which aspects of our personal lives are being bought and sold by data brokers. That’s not the case in much of the rest of the world, where there are vast data protections, entire agencies devoted to data privacy, and serious enforcement efforts.

    “Generally, if information is publicly available in the United States, its use is not restricted,” said Jim Halpert, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C.-based firm DLA Piper who specializes in global data regulations. “The way that a defender of the U.S. system would respond is to say people don’t really care if they get more specific advertising that they might be interested in… But it goes to discrimination in a certain way rather than to the information collection itself being a harm. At some point you can collect so much information about an individual that it becomes intrusive.”

    Browse through DLA Piper’s extensive guide to data regulations and enforcement around the world and it’s clear that the United States stands out compared with more robust protections in places like Canada and Europe. […]

    Culturally, Americans prize the right to privacy. And there are U.S. sectors, like health care, where protecting personal data is paramount. But Americans don’t even know which pieces of their personal data is swirling around out there. Your name, age, past addresses, political party enrollment, whether you own a home—sure, you might expect that kind of stuff is to be shared by marketers and others who deal in data. But data brokers specialize in inference, too, so they can figure out all kinds of super-specific details about who you are and how you live. […]

    The [Federal Trade Commission] has been pushing for Congress to do something about free wheeling data brokers for the better part of the last decade. All this data collection is happening without consumer consent, and some the profiling that seems innocuous is actually harmful, the commission argues. […]

    Big data knows your net worth. It knows that you have a dog. It knows when you’re most likely to use a coupon. It knows your favorite brand of detergent. It knows your dress size. It knows about your last speeding ticket, and when you got the oil changed. It knows you have a hunting license. It knows whether you’re pregnant—and often before you have a chance to share the news. The New York Times in 2012 told the alarming story of a teenager whose father angrily complained to Target for sending his young daughter promotional mailings for cribs and baby clothes. It later turned out the girl was pregnant, just as her data profile predicted. She simply hadn’t told her parents yet.

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