Something rather remarkable is happening: Acxiom, one of the top data brokers in the country, is going to launch a website called AbouttheData.com, which allows consumers to see exactly what information Acxiom has compiled on them.
They can even change this information or opt out of data collection altogether.
This transparency is a step in the right direction. We should know what personal information data brokers are collecting about us and selling to third parties, and we should be able to change this information if it’s incorrect and choose to opt out if we don’t want to be tracked.
But even with this new transparency, we are missing the elephant in the room in regards to data brokers. Over the past couple of decades, data brokers have been changing the very nature of what constitutes our individual private identity, with little or no input from the general public.
It’s not hyperbole to say that they have redefined what privacy means.
Data Brokers: An Overview
Acxiom is one the leading companies in the data broker industry; they made over a billion dollars in 2013. In a nutshell, database marketing is the process of researching publicly held information and compiling data on individual consumers that is then sold to third parties who want this information, generally for marketing purposes.
Acxiom has 2300 servers processing 50 trillion transactions per year. They have information on over 500 million consumers, with an astounding 1500 data points per consumer.
So what information do they know about you? More than likely, Acxiom knows when you were born and your biological history, your household income, the make and model of the car you drive, what your mortgage is, your education level, marital status, and how many kids you have.
And this is just for starters. They also know about your recent purchases and your interests and hobbies. To put it simply, the probably know more about you than you know about yourself.
Acxiom then turns around and sells this information to whoever wants to buys it. Until now, you have had no control over even knowing what information they are collecting about you.
And this has all been perfectly legal.
Acxiom and AllAbouttheData.com
So why is Acxiom finally letting us see what information they are compiling on us? More than likely, they have seen the writing on the wall that future legislation and regulations might compel them to release this information to the general public anyway, and they are trying to get out in front of it in an effort to have a stake in how the process unfolds. It also is good PR for the company.
And in some ways, Acxiom is to be commended to making this first step in regards to transparency and allowing consumers to see what data has been compiled about them.
The only problem is that this doesn’t address the bigger picture.
Data Brokers and the Future of Personal Identity
As a culture, we have yet to fully grapple or appreciate the amount of data that is being gathered on us. This data collection has largely happened in secret, without our full knowledge, and there is probably no stopping it at this point. But it’s not a stretch to say that these data brokers are changing the definition of what constitutes our individual identity.
In the past, our identity was known only to ourselves and perhaps our family and friends. But with the rise of the Internet and the ability of companies to track us both online and offline, now huge conglomerates know more about us than we may know about ourselves. We are sliding into this brave new world where we are rapidly losing any sort of real privacy in our lives.
While some of us may be okay with that, the point is that as a culture we haven’t had a real conversation regarding this fundamental change to our lives. Corporations have decided that this loss of privacy is a good thing.
For most of human history, our right to privacy was assumed and inherent. It has been one of our most cherished ideals. But now data brokers have monetized our identity, and the notion of privacy seems to be more and more archaic, something from a previous era.
Stay tuned to the second part of this topic, where I discuss my experience with AbouttheData.com.