Ed's Blog

Privacy Hawks Demand Info From Data Brokers

By Ed Mierzwinski
Consumer Program Director

Data brokers are companies that buy and sell your public and non-public information, collected from a variety of online and offline sources, to government agencies and private firms, for a variety of uses. Most people know nothing about data brokers and the data brokers like it that way. Further, most people have no idea what the data brokers do with their information. Their activities are non-transparent. The firms buy and sell information gleaned from public record databases, social network sites and other sources; but unlike the Big Three credit bureaus, no one really knows what they are up to. While credit bureaus are required by law to keep your records accurate, limit access to them and give you certain rights to review and correct them, data brokers generally insist that no laws apply to them and insist further that their activities are not covered by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Now comes a bi-partisan group of Representatives, led by the longtime co-chairs of the Bi-Partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus,  the political odd couple of Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX), who have sent detailed information demands (their news release and the letters here) to a number of these virtually unregulated data brokers.

Natasha Singer of the New York Times has a story today on the demands. Excerpt:

In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission began its own investigation into the practices of more than a dozen data compilers. One of those companies, Spokeo, recently agreed to settle charges with the government that it had violated federal law by selling consumers’ personal data for employment screening. Enforcement actions against several other data brokers are pending, the agency said.

On Sunday, Natasha had her latest story in a series on the data brokers. Consumer Data, but Not for Consumers focuses on the secretive Arkansas firm Axciom (don't be fooled by the bright and cheery "y'all come on in" front page), one of the targets of the Congressional inquiry. She quotes FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, a longtime privacy expert who sought credit bureau and other privacy reforms for many years as a state assistant attorney general before she was appointed to the FTC by President Obama:

EXCERPT "In 1996, Congress updated the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970, giving people greater access to the files that those agencies held about them. Today, consumers can easily gain access to their credit reports online. “What the credit reporting industry did was change their point of view from client-oriented to consumer-oriented, and develop the tools and technology to allow consumers to see what’s in their reports and ensure it is accurate,” Ms. Brill said. “The data broker industry could do the exact same thing.”

The letters from Congress to the data brokers, indeed, echo some of the same concerns U.S. PIRG has raised for years about data brokers evading the FCRA. Excerpt in screen shot from the Congressional letter to Axciom (all letters appear identical).

Also today, the NY Times has an editorial "Faulty Criminal Background Checks" supporting reform of the employment background check industry. These firms are a subset of the data brokers and a report cited in the editorial, from the authoritative National Consumer Law Center, finds that many of the firms violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

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