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How Do I Get Out of This Relationship?

Sandra Fulton,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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October 24, 2013

We have written extensively about online data brokers and their penchant for mining public records and secretly following you around the web in order to create profiles based on personal information they glean. They then share that information with marketers, insurance companies, background check companies, and even law enforcement.

Acxiom—one of the largest data brokers in the country—recently allowed individuals to view certain parts of their profile and edit or delete some details. Although we believe that strong laws are necessary to ensure people have access to this information at all times, we appreciate Acxiom’s nod to transparency.

I checked out my profile and was impressed with their invasive prowess—they nailed me as a single female who made a certain amount of money and enjoyed spending it on clothing and electronics. I was about to log out when I was struck by the language in their privacy policy:

To access data related to you, you are required to provide personally identifiable information and pass an authentication exam to verify your identity. The information you provide will be used to support your relationship with Acxiom on this website.

My relationship with Acxiom? Pump the brakes Acxiom, we’ve only just met.

Let’s talk about the word relationship. When I think of good relationships, I think of words like trust, honesty, consent, healthy boundaries; pretty much the direct opposite of what I think about when I think about data brokers. Successful data brokers follow us around without our say so in order to gather personal information. And they don’t just collect your age, gender, marital status, and address—creepy enough already—but potentially things as private as visits to websites that discuss mental health issues, like suicide, or physical ailments, such as incontinence.

This is not the trusting, sharing rapport present in healthy relationships.

And search histories are just the beginning of the story. Secret databases of customer shopping habits can prevent consumers from making returns. Errors in databases commonly keep people from getting jobs. Databases of correct but trivial information can prevent consumers from opening bank accounts. And, as we saw last week, data brokers have recklessly sold individuals’ personal information to identity thieves.

Although I’m flattered that Acxiom thought we were ready to get serious, this type of relationship—stalker and stalkee—generally ends with a restraining order. This multi-billion dollar industry is expanding quickly and without sufficient regulation. It is time for Congress to act to reel in this invasion of Americans’ privacy.

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