Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., signaled his intent to continue an investigation of data brokers by sending an additional 12 letters requesting information from Internet publishers.
Last fall, Sen. Rockefeller sent letters to nine data brokers – including Acxiom and Experian – seeking information on how they compile and sell consumer data. The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation expressed concern that “consumers are largely unaware of how your company uses their sensitive information for financial gain.”
The September 24 letters to sites About.com, babycenter.com, bankrate.com, cafemom.com, fool.com, ehealthforum.com, financeyoungmoney.com, health.com, investopedia.com, mensfitness.com, realage.com, and self.com sought similar information about the collection and use of consumer information. Sen. Rockefeller queried whether the sites collect “health, family, financial or other information” provided by consumers who respond to a questionnaire or survey, or who enter a sweepstakes.
He also asked whether that data is then linked to personally identifiable information to create a broader profile and what, if any, data is shared with third parties. “When consumers provide personal information in interactions with websites, they may not be aware that data they are sharing may be shared with data brokers,” he wrote. “Consumers may also not be aware of how that information may be used once it has been shared with data brokers.”
Sen. Rockefeller’s second round of letters was prompted by the data broker responses he received. Web sites that gather information directly from consumers “may be a source of consumer information for data brokers,” he wrote, and respondents have indicated that they “obtain information from consumer-facing website sources.”
Sen. Rockefeller did note that the data brokers have been less than forthcoming. He noted that “several major data brokers have refused to identify to the Committee specific sources of the consumer information they obtain – or the specific entities that in turn have compiled information from individual website sources,” instead, those brokers have generally replied that they derive data from online “sweepstakes” and “questionnaires.”
One thing has been made clear to the committee, however: data brokers market consumer information by categorizing consumers based on their likely behaviors and characteristics.
“Regardless of whether such characterizations are positive, negative, or erroneous, the process of determining these characterizations is not transparent to the consumer,” Sen. Rockefeller wrote. Privacy policies leave room for sites to share data and do not disclose how and to whom information is shared.
The Direct Marketing Association spoke out against Sen. Rockefeller’s continued investigation. “The companies targeted in Chairman Rockefeller’s ‘data broker’ investigation have submitted tens of thousands of pages explaining their business models and the incredible value that responsible data use provides to consumers,” DMA’s senior vice president of government affairs Peggy Hudson said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that after receiving all of the evidence, Chairman Rockefeller has chosen to single out a couple of poorly named marketing categories as a reason to demagogue an industry.”
To read Sen. Rockefeller’s letter to self.com, click here.
Why it matters: The scrutiny currently being accorded to data brokers does not show any signs of abating. In addition to Sen. Rockefeller’s continued investigation, members of the Federal Trade Commission have publicly spoken out about big data. Commissioner Julie Brill authored an op-ed in The Washington Post that compared data broker practices to the National Security Agency’s collection of personal information. She called for greater transparency and the adoption of a “Reclaim Your Name” program by the data broker industry. Her remarks were followed by FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez’s warning that the agency intends to keep a close eye on companies with large quantities of data. “With big data comes big responsibility,” she noted.