Data services company Acxiom will launch AboutTheData.com “overnight,” a website that allows consumers to access their personal data and edit inaccurate entries.
This is in line with frequent requests made by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has been asking so-called data brokers for more transparency. In a March 2012 FTC report entitled “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change,” the FTC called upon data brokers to create a centralized portal where data brokers could identify themselves, describe how they collect and use consumer data, and detail access rights.
“The agency has recommended that data brokers be more transparent about their information, collection, and use practices for a long time,” says Christopher Olsen, assistant director of the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection for the FTC. “We're pleased the companies like Acxiom are taking steps in this direction to attempt to improve transparency.”
John Simpson, privacy project director for consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, suspects that Acxiom created AboutTheData.com in response to increasing pressure from lawmakers.
“I see this is as not anything being done out of the goodness of their hearts,” Simpson says. “I think it's being done because of all of the pressure, the light, and the demand for information that's being shined on them.”
Acxiom became the center of the data collection controversy when The New York Times reported on its data collection and selling practices back in June 2012 article, which prompted eight Congressional members to send letters of inquiry to nine major data brokers, including Acxiom, requesting information about the data brokers' activities.
The Times reports that Acxiom CEO Scott E. Howe took the site for a test drive and was able to access demographic data, economic status, homeownership information, interests, purchase history, and vehicle information. Clicking on each data entry enabled him to identify the information's source and amend or suppress data points, or to opt out of the database altogether.
Bryan Kennedy, CEO of data management company Epsilon, argues that allowing consumers to review and verify their data has pros on cons. "Allowing consumers to review and verify their data–whether it's through a website or through a written request–could potentially deliver a more personalized online experience for them," he says. "One con associated with allowing consumers to correct data is that it requires verification data that a company, such as Epsilon, may not currently house; for example, social security numbers…or driver's license data."
“There needs to be a way to ensure consumer-entered information does not conflict with verified public sources, such as deed or property data,” Kennedy adds. “It's also important to note that an individual data element is typically a single variable in a model consisting of many variables, and those analytically-derived models are typically what are used by marketers, so the value to a consumer of modifying a single element may not be significantly material.”
Consumer Watchdog's Simpson also raises some potential issues with the verification system, for instance, the potential for an individual to mis-identify him or herself as another consumer and distort somebody else's data. He also speculates on the opt-out mechanism that Acxiom will use.
“If it's a mechanism where, in opting out, they simply put a cookie down on your browser, that could be problematic [because], as many people do, your cookies are cleared regularly, so you can find a situation where you [think you] have opted out, but weeks later you're no longer opted out and you no longer realize it,” Simpson says.
Kennedy, however, believes consumers need to be educated on the benefits of data collection.
“Advertising will always be a part of the online experience,” Kennedy says. “Consumers at times need to be reminded that those ads are why they can access most websites for free.”
As of press time, representatives from Acxiom and the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) had yet to comment.