Time looks into the issue of the collection of users’ online and offline data in order to create a detailed personal profile of individuals’ activities:
“Big Brother is watching you.” That’s a line from the dystopian classic 1984, but it’s also far closer to reality than most Americans realize. No, there’s not some totalitarian government spy in a trench coat following you, but you are being watched — not by a dictator, but by a handful of companies that make big bucks aggregating tiny scraps of information about you and putting the puzzle pieces together to build your digital profile. Eight lawmakers are demanding that these companies crack open their vaults so Congress can see what they’re compiling about us and what they’re doing with it.
Right now, this multibillion-dollar industry is largely unregulated. A New York Times article earlier this year about a data-mining company prompted the two co-chairs of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus and six other Congress members to send a letter to nine companies that collect personal data. They’ve asked these corporations where they get their data, how they slice and dice it, and to whom they sell and share it. […]
“It tends to be extraordinarily intrusive,” says Joel Reidenberg, director of the Center on Law and Information Policy at the Fordham University School of Law. “They’ll pick out seemingly innocuous information. Most people wouldn’t think twice about each individual data point, but you can connect the dots,” he says. The result is profiling — by ethnicity, by age, by education and income level. The company profiled in the Times’ article has literally dozens of profiles of types of people.
And after we give our information away, we have no idea what companies do with it. Unlike credit reporting agencies, which are required to let you see the composite picture of you they’ve created with the data they mine and organize, data companies keep their vast virtual warehouses under lock and key.
Most of the time, this information is used to sell you stuff. […]
But that’s not what concerns lawmakers and privacy experts. They worry that people’s virtual selves could get them written off as undesirable, whether the depiction is correct or not. There’s also the question of accuracy in general. Some consumer groups estimate that up to 25% of credit reports have errors, and those errors can lead to difficulty getting a loan or other type of credit. Without any way to look at our consumer profiles, people have no idea what marketers and other interested parties see and how they’re judging us.