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Cross posted from In the (K)now blog

George Orwell could scarcely have imagined that his sci-fi novel, set in 1984, would come true a mere 30 years later.
 But according to a Federal Trade Commission report on “big data” released this week, it apparently has.
In Data Brokers: A call for transparency and accountability, the government watchdog lays out in frightening detail how much is being collected about all of us and the uses to which it is being and could be put.
The FTC unanimously calls for legislation to give consumers the right to learn about the existence and activities of data brokers and give them access to their data.

“The need for consumer protections in this area has never been greater,” the report concludes.

The exhaustive 110-page report, the result of a two-year study, lays bare the inner workings of an industry that does not seek the limelight. In fact, it has little interaction with consumers at all.
“Data brokers acquire a vast array of detailed and specific information about consumers; analyze it to make inferences about consumers, some of which may be considered quite sensitive; and share the information with clients in a range of industries. Much of this activity takes place without consumers’ knowledge,” the commission says.
 Who knew?
Well, now you do.
“This report attempts to provide a window into data brokers’ collection and use of consumer information and makes recommendations to enhance transparency and consumer control,” the report concludes.

“It also raises concerns about the collection of sensitive data about consumers and the development of labels and categories that could be used to target and potentially discriminate against consumers.”
What makes the revelations more urgent is the sheer amount of data from so many different sources – online and elsewhere – that can now be combined and stored forever.
In its findings section, the report details the characteristics of the modern industry:
 “Data brokers collect and store a vast amount of data on almost every U.S. household and commercial transaction.  For example, one of the nine data brokers [in the study] has 3000 data segments for nearly every U.S. consumer.”
Data brokers infer consumer interests from the data they collect and place individuals into finely targeted categories. Some may seem innocent enough – like “single dog owners” – but others may be more sensitive – like “Expectant Parent,” “Diabetes Interest,” and “Cholesterol Focus.”
The report notes the potential risks to consumers:
“If a consumer is denied the ability to conclude a transaction based on an error in a risk mitigation product, the consumer can be harmed without knowing why. In such cases, the consumer is not only denied the immediate benefit, but also cannot take steps to prevent the problem from recurring.”
The lack of transparency about the industry gives the commission most cause for alarm. After noting that many consumers don’t even know about data brokers, it notes:
“Even those consumers who know who the data brokers are, find their websites, and take the time to find the opt out and use it may still not know its limitations.”
Opt outs are not offered for all products, and the extent of consumer control is confusing, the commission says.
The urgency of the commission report is emphasized in its recommendations for a legislative solution.
“Since [the 1990s], data broker practices have grown dramatically in breadth and depth, as data brokers have the ability to collect information from more sources, including consumers’ online activities; analyze it through new and emerging algorithms and business models; and store the information indefinitely due to dwindling storage costs,” the FTC says.
“Lack of transparency and choice remain significant issues in this industry.”
This is a frightening conclusion about a nearly invisible but enormously influential industry. Most of us are blissfully unaware that so much data is now being collected and combined about our tastes, habits, even illnesses and medicines we use.
Each item may seem innocuous in isolation, but when they are all combined they draw a detailed picture of our lives about which even we may not be fully aware.
The potential for abuse is far too enormous, and the risk of serious harm is great. This report, should be required reading for each and every person, and its recommendations should be enacted into law by Congress without delay.
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Comment Preferences

  •  Even Orwell (7+ / 0-)

    was unable to imagine a depth of surveillance such as we have today.

    •  and the vast majority of it... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      .... isn't NSA, it's the corporate sector.

      The chances of anyone on DK ever being directly affected by NSA activities are approximately zero.  But the chances of anyone on DK being affected by the data brokers are approximately 100%.

      This is where the real danger is.

      Everyone likes to romanticize about dissidents locked up in prison cells, but the real threat, the real oppression, has to do with dissidents denied jobs and credit and thereby housing and livelihood.  The difference is that these individuals are not thought of as "heroes" but as "losers" because they "failed" in some way.

      What we need is the equivalent of a Snowden in the corporate data collection & data brokerage industry, and another one at Google, another at Facebook, and another at Twitter.  

      We got the future back. Uh-oh.

      by G2geek on Fri May 30, 2014 at 04:03:20 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Agreed. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        While I don't do the Google/Facebook/Twitter thing, all I have to do is type "Hawai'i" and offers for hotels and airfare pop up on the sidebar. I do understand that everything I view and say on line is monitored and recorded by industry.

        Advertising is one thing, but I do have to wonder how my comments and viewing habits affect things like employment opportunities, ability to rent a house, credit score, and etc. And, of course, how much of the activity attributed to me is actually my activity. Sometimes even the advertising targeted towards me is utterly inappropriate to my age, gender, and interests.

        Any time data collected can affect our employment, housing, or credit opportunities we should - nay, we MUST - be able to review such data for accuracy, with a contested case and appeals process in place. Congress should enact legislation ensuring these rights immediately, as we suffer the damage resulting from inaccurate data daily.

  •  This is a report we should all read (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    allie4fairness, nchristine, Lujane, G2geek

    and take action on.  Businesses have long regarded data as an asset and has gone to great lengths to protect it.  Sadly, people have not recognized this and have unwittingly allowed the changes the report discusses.  It's past time for us to get control on the data collected about us. It is true, “The need for consumer protections in this area has never been greater”.

    Be the change you want to see in the world. -Gandhi

    by DRo on Thu May 29, 2014 at 12:25:46 PM PDT

    •  The biggest problem is not the data we supply (6+ / 0-)

      or the truthful data that is collected about us.  I find it very offensive that these people are doing everything but sniffing our lingerie drawers, but that is not the most frightening aspect of this.  These companies make no meaningful effort to be sure that personal 'data' is actually correct.  A person with a common last name may be tarred with misconduct of some person they never heard of.  There is no way to remove this libel and it can cost the victims employment opportunities.  


      •  True (5+ / 0-)

        No way to correct wrong data, and no way to even see the data that goes in to decisions about jobs, credit, housing, court cases, etc.   We don't get to see what others get to see about us, and have no clue nor recourse when an unfavorable decision is made.

        Be the change you want to see in the world. -Gandhi

        by DRo on Thu May 29, 2014 at 01:57:56 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  whether it's truthful or not, is a distraction. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Do you really want a prospective employer to know that you recently posted comments in an "alien sex" forum and bought a bright green dildo and a space alien costume?  Even if, or especially if, it's true?

        Knowledge is power.

        When they know all about you, but you know nothing about them, who has the power?

        The issue is power.  

        We got the future back. Uh-oh.

        by G2geek on Fri May 30, 2014 at 04:05:53 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  My last name is a common one. Some moran (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          attributed a felony committed by someone with a similar name to me.  My actual criminal background checks come up completely clean.  

          When this came up during employment interviews I tried to track it down.  None of the cyberstalkers who pose as information brokers would let me know anything about what BS they were spreading about me.  

          I used to be a science teacher.

  •  If you own private plane (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Your flight plan are not secret ,you have to file an FAA flightplan ,that  is public record ,only thing a person need is your plane tail number and thier  are  website that track your plane flight

  •  re: expectant parent-yeah my favorite was the teen (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lujane, G2geek, allie4fairness

    who was outed to her parents by advertising from Target, which was using a "pregnancy prediction score".

    And so, after all this, I think it is only fair to acknowledge that the Christians have been predicting this since at least 1994. Racing Toward the Mark of the Beast: Computers, your money, and the end of the world may sound crazy to some, but it is actually a book about what "data mining" means and what it could soon do. Boy oh Boy they were right on before any of my secular friends saw this as a problem.

    Personally, I have had the same checking account since 1984, changed only once when I married in 1985 to reflect my married name, at which time I officially changed my middle initial on all my records, including that account, to reflect that my maiden surname initial was now my middle initial, and my former middle initial was no longer.
         Over the years I would bring in the paper and order new checks. No changes. Ever. Then one day in early 2013 I noticed that my initial had been changed to the childhood one. When I approached the bank, it turned out that when we did our refinancing package, someone in the bank, for no apparent reason, had read my full record, decided to be 'helpful' (or something? who knows) and changed it for me in that record, which then, by the miracle of computers, got changed down the line to my account.
        Now these people have known me for 30 years yet in order to change that back I had to sign a sort of an affidavit saying that I was choosing to change all my records. The bank had no requirements for a thing like that internally at all. It wasn't very hard for me to fix, but this is still a small town and my name is not common here.

    We are all pupils in the eyes of God.

    by nuclear winter solstice on Thu May 29, 2014 at 07:54:37 PM PDT

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