Regulating Data Brokers

by Jeff Sovern

In a column last week, The Wild West of Privacy, Times columnist Joe Nocera called for, among other things, regulating data brokers.  In response, I wrote a letter to the Times, which they ran here.  Here's what I said:

Joe Nocera argues that data brokers should be obliged to tell consumers what information the brokers have collected about them.

To understand why consumers might want that, consider that Acxiom, a company that tells consumers what data it has collected about us, reports incorrectly all of the following: my income; whether I live with children; that I own a truck; that I have bought art, antiques, jewelry, bathroom furnishings, window treatments and golf products; and that I am interested in fine cooking, crafts, collecting antiques and golf. (Acxiom thinks that I’m much more fun than I am.)

It accurately reports my ethnicity, birthday, marital status, political party and lots of other information about me.

I wonder what other companies know about us, how much of it is incorrect, and to whom they provide the information. What consequences flow from the incorrect records? Why should strangers be able to buy private information about us without our knowledge, and what do they do with the information they collect? Laws of the sort Mr. Nocera calls for might help us learn that.

Want to know what Acxiom knows (or thinks it knows) about you? Go here. For readers teaching consumer protection and using our casebook, this might be a useful exercise when you get to chapter five of the book.