Data Mining, Privacy and Personalization: Cyberazzi

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If you want to be “creeped out” when it comes to how much personal data is being collected and aggregated about you, read Natasha Singer’s article, “You For Sale: Mapping, and Sharing, the Consumer Genome” which appeared in The New York Times‘ Sunday Business section, on June 17th. It’s an exposé of Acxiom. Acxiom and Epsilon are two of the largest data miners and aggregators who mine, aggregate, and sell information about each of us to companies willing to pay for that information.

Singer reports that Acxiom has 1500 data points on 500 million active consumers. These include your income, many details about your health, your food preferences, the current assessed value of your home, your birth date, your race, what stocks/bonds you hold, what you weigh, what movies are in your collection, etc. Acxiom sells this information about you to corporations with whom you already do business as well as to those who want to target market to you. And collecting, mining, and reselling information about each of us—individually, and in aggregate—is perfectly legal…at least in the U.S.:

[In the U.S.,] “such large-scale data mining and analytics—based on information available in public records, consumer surveys and the like—are perfectly legal…In essence, it’s as if the ore of our data-driven lives were being mined, refined and sold to the highest bidder, usually without our knowledge—by companies that most people rarely even know they exist.”

~ Natasha Singer, The New York Times

Personalized Marketing vs. Data Aggregation



Marketers know that consumers respond best to offers, ads, and promotions that are relevant to them—e.g., personalized. Many of us are okay with having a single merchant (say, Amazon) know what we’ve purchased in the past, or with having a single financial institution (our main bank) know what loans, credit cards, and assets we hold. We like the fact that the recommendations they make to us about additional products or offers are relevant and appropriate.

We are less happy, however, when we know that that information is aggregated together in order to provide a more complete profile to others with whom we haven’t entrusted that information. We get more alarmed as we realize that information is being constantly tracked about our online and offline behavior and added to our profile which can then be purchased by other merchants to provide “shopper recognition” and more personalized offers. Acxiom and other database marketing companies sell services that let retailers simply type in a customer’s name and zip code and append all the additional profile information that retailer might want in order to tailor offers.

“‘This is a direct way of circumventing people’s concerns about privacy,’ says Mr. Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy.”

~ Jeffrey Chester quoted by Natasha Singer, The New York Times

What about Consumers’ Rights to Know and See Information Being Collected About Them? It’s not easy (and may not even be safe) to obtain a copy of the information that Acxiom has collected about you, Singer reports. A New York Times reporter tried to submit a request for his/her file (which required sending her social security number and a check for $5), only to discover that her SS# was not encrypted on Acxiom’s consumer request form. After waiting until the supposed security bug was fixed, she resubmitted the request on May 25th, 2012. Three weeks later, she still hadn’t received a copy of the records that Acxiom has about her.

Natasha Singer quotes Jon Leibowitz, the current chairman of the Federal Trade Commission as saying that:



“Consumers should have the right to see and correct personal details about them collected and sold by data aggregators. After all, he said, ‘they are the unseen cyberazzi who collect information on all of us.'”

~ Jon Leibowitz quoted by Natasha Singer, The New York Times

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