Digital by Design: Your Secret Consumer Scores and How They Are Used Against You


How likely are you to lose your job? What are the odds that you will take that medication your doctor prescribed to you? Are you the kind of person who will take your business to a competitor?

These are not just abstract questions. They are actual secret “consumer scores” that big data compiles on you and every adult in the U.S. to help companies and the government predict your behavior.

Each data score contains thousands of individual data points. And there are hundreds of these scores, including how likely you are to pay your debts, if you are likely to commit fraud, as well as law enforcement scores.

A report entitled “The Scoring of America: How Secret Consumer Scores Threaten Your Privacy and Future” was published April 2 by the World Privacy Forum which delves deep into the little known world of consumer scores. The World Privacy Forum is a non-profit research organization dedicated to reporting on privacy issues, and to educate people on the tools they need to protect their privacy and their digital lives.

The Shady World of Consumer Scores

Pam Dixon, the Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum, who authored the report with Robert Gellman, says that the main problem is not that these scores exist, but that they’re developed and used without the consumer’s knowledge.

Credit scores are heavily regulated and available to customers so they can correct them if they are wrong. This is not the case with consumer scores. Consumers have no right to see them and have no way of knowing if they are correct or not.

In a release, Dixon said “”Fair use of scores that consumers can see and correct is one thing, but secret scores can hide discrimination, unfairness and bias. Trade secrets have a place, but secrecy that hides racism, denies due process, undermines privacy rights, or prevents justice does not belong anywhere.”

Congressional Response

In response to this report, Senator Jay Rockefeller has begun to question some of the biggest data brokers, including Acxiom and Experian, asking for more information about consumer scores that including financial information or the health status of an individual.

Dixon and Gellman, the authors of the report, suggest that legislation is needed to allow consumer access to all of their consumer scores and the factors used to create them. These factors should be regulated by the Civil Rights Act or the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to make sure that race, age and other such protected information is not used when creating these scores. They also recommend that data companies provide an easy way for individuals to challenge and correct these scores.

Consumer scores are inherently unfair because consumers cannot see the scores, cannot know the factors that went into their creation, and have no say in who uses these scores or how they are used. Hopefully congressional action will give consumers the right to see and manage this personal information.


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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Manager, Product Marketing Communications. Working in high tech for over 15 years, Jared currently lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and their two cats.

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