Most people would think that the person or people who know them best are family members, close friends, or significant others. Unfortunately, one more category must be added to that list and it may be one that knows you better than anyone else: an information aggregator. Information aggregators, or data brokers, collect information regarding individuals and look to sell this information to marketers seeking to advertise their products to the best targeted audience possible.
This sounds fairly innocuous until one looks at the actual breadth and scope of information these aggregators are collecting. Reps. Edward J. Markey and Joe Barton along with six other congressman sent letters to nine major information aggregation companies citing an article in the New York Times ("A Data Giant is Mapping, and Sharing, the Consumer Genome") which explains what exactly these companies do. The article focuses on a company called Acxiom which collects information on nearly "500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person. That includes a majority of adults in the United States." Among these data points include "your age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, educational level, politics, buying habits, household health worries, vacation dreams - and on and on." The article goes on to state that Acxiom has 23,000 computer servers processing more than 50 trillion data transactions a year.
Just the data points mentioned are disturbing enough, but to think that these companies have up to approximately 1500 is downright problematic. The Congressmen writing the letters to these companies express their concern that, in addition, to the privacy concerns involved with this so called "data mining", how companies use this information may lead to another process called "weblining."
Weblining is a process by which companies will grade each individual and base decisions about them solely in regard to the information they buy from companies like Acxiom. Privacy advocates warn that this way of profiling consumers can lead to different classes of individuals which will receive different offers and attention from different companies. Health insurance, higher education, employment, and financing could all be decided before you ever get in contact with an insurance agency, school, potential employer or lender, all based upon the information gathered and collated by information aggregators. The Congressmen behind these letters are especially concerned with what and how these aggregators are collecting information on children and minors, as this method of profiling could impact them the most.
The lack of transparency and the volume of legally collected information on consumers is not the only concern as these data brokerage firms are extremely attractive to criminal hackers. While it is unsettling to know that a corporation has such intimate details about you and your habits, they are at least following the law (as lacking as it may be) regarding privacy. They take measures to encrypt and protect your data to minimize any information reaching any unintended parties. A criminal hacker who successfully hacks one of these data brokerage firms would potentially have personal information on hundreds of millions of people.
With Congress struggling to pass any meaningful cybersecurity laws regarding protecting or collecting personal information from online consumers, it seems that, for now, the individual consumer can only hope his or her information profile doesn't exclude them from opportunities in life or end up in the hands of a criminal.
"What is Information Aggregation and Why Should You Care?" was written by Sam Imandoust, Esq. He serves as a legal analyst for the Identity Theft Resource Center. We welcome you to post/reprint the above article, as written, giving credit to and linking back to ITRC Blog.