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Watching the Detectives

WASHINGTON — Data brokers have given Congress a sense of just how much — and what types — of information they collect from consumers to help companies better target advertising and relevant services online and elsewhere.

The data was requested by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus and a leading advocate for stronger government protection of the sharing and use of online information.

Markey and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairman of the privacy caucus, said many questions went unanswered by the nine companies contacted, but one question that was answered was how many Americans are affected by the practice.

Only one company, Little Rock, Ark.-based Acxiom, put a figure on the number of consumers affected by data collection. But it was an eye-opener: 190 million.

Information on data brokers comes from a variety of sources, including online activity, telephone directories, the Social Security Administration’s Deceased Master file, the State Department Terrorist Exclusion list, state motor-vehicle agency records, other government and public records, retailers, other third parties and the consumers themselves.

Acxiom says it supplies information to half of the Fortune 100 companies, seven of the top 10 telecom and media firmss (it does not say which), five government agencies and both major political parties, among others.


Some of the information Acxsion has been collecting that tells who and where you are, where you’ve been — to jail or Disney World — and what you like to do when you get there:

Phone number (land line)
Phone number (mobile)
Email address
Social Security number*
Date of birth
Religious affiliation
Political party membership
Language preference
Home Value
Length of residence in home
Marital status
Presence of children
Number of people in family
Net worth
Estimated income
Type of credit card **
Criminal conviction history
Judgments and liens
Licenses ***
Health interests (in diabetes, arthiritis, homeopathy) ****
Types of retail purchases *****
Types of social media used ******

*Only used for identify verification and “risk mitigation products.” **Not including credit card numbers. ***Including hunting, fishing, boating, guns, ATVs, snowmobiles and aircraft . **** No information protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. ***** Groceries, gas, travel. ****** Including sites visited, videos viewed on or posted to YouTube, Web page sign-ons.

SOURCE: Acxiom

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.