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Privacy Perspectives | When “All About You” Isn’t Much About You at All Related reading: How TC260 certification rules could satisfy PIPL legal path for data transfers



After much rumination, I “took the plunge” today and signed in to Acxiom’s new “About The Data” portal. For those who are not familiar, Acxiom is one of the world’s largest data aggregators. They create digital dossiers of people based on publicly available data, survey data and other “general data from other commercial entities,” and sell it to marketers trying to sell us stuff. They were also, not coincidentally, arguably the first company to have a CPO —I detailed their efforts here.

And this week, they became the first so-called data broker to offer consumers a portal into what they’ve collected.

To sign in, I simply provided some personal information—much of which an average identity thief may already possess—and voila! My digital dossier, right there in front of my eyes! What did I find, you may ask? Was it as detailed as the dossier Captain Benjamin Willard had on Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, you may implore? Did it capture all my past purchases and preferences? Did it have marketing evidence for what my dream purchases might be? Did it list my occupation as a writer or privacy professional, even?

Well, no. Not so much.

What I found, at least according to what Acxiom is willing to share through this portal, is that it didn’t know much about me at all—and much of what it thinks it knows about me is pretty inaccurate. I had one online purchase this year? C’mon, man.

Forbes’ Adam Tanner likens these personal data files to a hilarious Bizarro World.

“One woman who only once in her life even touched a gun—as a child—is listed as a hunting enthusiast, but in some fields they had correct interest data about her, including an interest in low fat cooking and reading. In Bizarro World, another woman had a child. ‘I’m able to understand why Acxiom thinks I have one child when I have none—I buy gifts for young nieces and nephews,’ she said. ‘Household income is off, and shopping data says that I made one purchase in the last 24 months for online and offline purchases at retailers! That’s hysterical! Supposedly I’m interested in cooking, but I hate cooking. Perhaps the one purchase they have me buying in the past 24 months was a cookbook for someone.’”

And by seeing other tweets and chatting with colleagues here in the office since the portal opened up, these cases and mine certainly aren’t the only ones portraying such inaccuracies.

So why would Acxiom do this? Well, one, it’s good privacy PR, right? They are presenting themselves as the standard bearers in online transparency. They’re providing consumers with an option to control and correct their data. Privacy is certainly becoming a business driver. Okay, check.

Two, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has made it clear they’re watching data brokers. So it seems sensible for Acxiom to get the ball rolling and show the FTC it’s thinking about privacy, too. Check.

It also seems like Acxiom’s portal is a way to get consumers to clarify their digital selves. Or as one data security professor said to Tanner, “My feeling is that this is bait to get people to clean their data without even paying them.” Check (maybe)

Additionally, this week two separate surveys, one by TRUSTe and the other by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, revealed growing concerns among consumers about their online privacy. My colleague, Angelique Carson, CIPP/US, has written in-depth articles about each survey: TRUSTe here and Pew here.

One clear takeaway from each survey is that consumers are growing more concerned about privacy. “Consumers are increasingly aware of mobile tracking, the (TRUSTe) survey found, and of those aware of such tracking, 69 percent dislike it,” Carson writes. But perhaps, what should be even more concerning for data brokers and the ad industry is Pew’s findings. Eighty-six percent of Internet users surveyed “have taken at least one step to remove or mask their digital footprints online,” Carson notes.

Certainly consumer perception of dwindling online privacy is becoming a reality for businesses that use personal information—in full or in part—as economic fuel, not to mention possible regulatory scrutiny.

But as Matt Asay writes in Read Write Web, “For all the hype about the promise of Big Data, the reality of what marketers know about us is surprisingly scant.” He points out, and I found as well, that some of Acxiom’s data is very accurate, adding,

“What's weird is that despite this data, the ads I still see on the web (mostly obliterated by studious use of AdBlock) are generally irrelevant to my interests. I want to buy a used Subaru Outback as my daughter is now crowding me out of our family driving pool, and have registered that interest by spending far too much time on AutoBuyer, Edmunds, KSL and Craigslist looking at these cars. But I've yet to see a single ad tailored to this obvious buying intent.”

What’s ironic is that, after years of consumers not being quite aware of how much they’re being tracked by private business, fears of dwindling online privacy may have now actually outstripped reality. Marketers don’t seem to know much at all, if Acxiom is any indication.

So now that I know that the world’s largest data broker barely knows me (at least, according to their portal), should I be more or less concerned? And as more people see such inaccuracies, what will it mean for other companies that collect personal data?

For you chief privacy officers and privacy pros out there, will public perception about your data collection be viewed negatively because of this? Will people think your data about them sucks? Should your organization go this route?

On its portal, Acxiom states,

“Ever wonder what kind of information determines the ads you see or the offers you receive? You’ve come to the right place. About The Data brings you answers to questions about the data that fuels marketing and helps ensure you see offers on things that mean the most to you and your family.” I would say, though, that after logging in, I don’t think many of my questions were answered at all.

The fact that Acxiom took this step toward transparency is a good thing, in my opinion, but it doesn’t really assuage my concerns (they also provide an opt-out, which is nice) as a consumer. Are they simply being coy and trying to get me to provide them with more data about myself? Perhaps. With so many inaccuracies and such lack of granularity about my personal data, I walked away feeling relieved and concerned at the same time.

Acxiom’s move, and how it’s received over the next weeks and months, can also serve as a lesson for other privacy pros out there.

As more consumers get more sophisticated about protecting their digital footprint (yes, there is a thousand-pound gorilla wearing an NSA hat sitting in the room as I write this), and as privacy, transparency and accountability continue to grow as business drivers and differentiators, savvy privacy pros are going to think beyond compliance, and will put themselves into the shoes of their consumers. Businesses that truly want to promote privacy and transparency should not simply do so by checking off boxes on a compliance sheet, they should think about what their consumers want and fear, and make sure both are assuaged.

If the end result of is a populace that’s more comfortable knowing the great aggregator in the cloud still doesn’t know how many people live in their homes, let alone what’s in the underwear drawer, other firms may have a blueprint to follow by showing their cards the way Acxiom has done. If the consensus seems to be, however, that all of this tracking can’t even serve up a more appropriate ad, and in fact creates a nuisance, we may see calls for more stringent regulations.

Which is probably what Acxiom was trying to head off at the pass with this move in the first place.

photo credit: brtsergio via photopin cc


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  • comment Christie Dudley • Sep 10, 2013
    I believe your conclusion is flawed because you make the tacit assumption that this is all the data Axciom has on a person. In no way does Axciom represent that the set of data they have collected is complete or comprehensive.
    Reading the announcements surrounding this closely, I noticed that they continually refer to "information about you." At one point they came out and said that they were only including "some" of the information about people. It is a mistake to conclude that because the data they present is so scant that all the concern is for naught. 
    If I were a data broker in Axciom's position, I would use this as an opportunity to correct data that is questionable about a person. This increases the value of the data they have corrected. I would hold back any information that is either certain, establishes conclusions that might make the data subject uncomfortable or undermine their comfort level in presenting it. They have presented just enough to allow the conclusions you have arrived at, but only if the assumption that it is complete is maintained.
    That said, I cannot access my own data, so have not been able to review it for myself. Apparently, my attempts at preserving my own privacy have been more successful than I anticipated.
  • comment Sam Pfeifle, IAPP Publications Director • Sep 10, 2013
    Hi Christie,
    I think Jed is right there with you, actually. He does not make that tacit assumption - he writes, "at least according to what Acxiom is willing to share through this portal." And he very clearly offers up the idea that this could all be an attempt to get people to share more information:
    "It also seems like Acxiom’s portal is a way to get consumers to clarify their digital selves. Or as one data security professor said to Tanner, “My feeling is that this is bait to get people to clean their data without even paying them.” Check (maybe)"
    I think even with these caveats, the point stands: It's not only that the information is relatively scant, it's that it's often dead wrong. Were this some kind of artful holding back, do you think they have systematically figured out a way to introduce errors into what they show people to make them feel better? And since Jed is arguing that those errors might not actually make people feel better, what do you think the point would be in showing people erroneous information about themselves?
  • comment Jay Libove • Sep 11, 2013
    I jumped onto Axciom's transparency page as soon as it was available, and found that they knew nothing about me at all. Perhaps that's because, years ago, as soon as it became possible, I opted opt of being analyzed by Axciom. (I think I had to send paper to do so, at the time!)  :-)
  • comment I Raicu • Sep 12, 2013
    The fact that much of the collected data is incorrect isn't very comforting as long as the reality remains that decisions about us are being made on the basis of that data.