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Watching you…watching me…

I vowed to myself that this week I was going to post about something other than surveillance, but this one is too good not to write about!

A Data Broker Offers a Peek Behind the Curtain

The Acxiom Corporation, a marketing technology company that has amassed details on the household makeup, financial means, shopping preferences and leisure pursuits of a majority of adults in the United States, is trying something new. According to the NYT, Acxiom is the “quiet giant” of consumer database marketing. It knows who you are. It knows where you live. It knows what you do.

Few consumers have ever heard of Acxiom. But analysts say it has amassed the world’s largest commercial database on consumers — and that it wants to know much, much more. Its servers process more than 50 trillion data “transactions” a year. Company executives have said its database contains information about 500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person. That includes a majority of adults in the United States.

But now Acxiom, one of the most secretive and prolific collectors of consumer information, is embarking on a novel public relations strategy: openness. On Wednesday, September 4, Acxiom unveiled a free Web site where we can all see, edit, or suppress the information the company has collected about us.

The data on the site, called AbouttheData.com, includes biographical facts, like education level, marital status and number of children in a household; homeownership status, including mortgage amount and property size; vehicle details, like the make, model and year; and economic data, like whether a household member is an active investor with a portfolio greater than $150,000. Also available will be the consumer’s recent purchase categories, like plus-size clothing or sports products; and household interests like golf, dogs, text-messaging, cholesterol-related products or charities.

From the About the Data website,

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.

More from the website:
Why is data about me important to companies?
How do companies get data about me and what do they do with it?
What types of data do companies use about me?

Now, if you’re curious, you can look at the data they have about you, and you have an option to edit it, or opt out of their collecting altogether. They say the penalty for opting out is that the ads you see will no longer be targeted to your personal interests or lifestyle. To look at your data, you first enter information about yourself, a Captcha code, and agree to terms of use.

To make sure we are accessing information about the correct person, we ask for some personal information, which we then compare to our Authentication system. We do this for your protection so that we can verify that we are only giving access to Acxiom’s digital Marketing Data about you.

I took a look at my own data, and here’s what I found.

  • “Characteristic Data” showed that I’m married (I’ve been divorced since 1990), 1 child “present,” 14 years old, a surname that’s Scottish/Irish (I still use my ex husband’s last name), no political party. My children are in their 40s (no 14 year old!) and don’t live with me.
  • “Home Data” was reasonably accurate. Most of that is available from public records, and they use home value and property size ranges, not specifics. But there was no mortgage amount shown.
  • “Vehicle Data” was not found. Interesting, because I own a registered, licensed automobile, the same one for about 5 years.
  • “Economic Data” showed regular American Express credit card use (I have only one credit card, and it isn’t an American Express card), regular online purchasing (that’s true), but the other info in that category wasn’t accurate, including household income.
  • “Shopping Data” also was inaccurate. It way understated my purchasing, both in dollars (only $408!) and in frequency (3 purchases in 24 months). It says I’m a mail order responder and a mail order buyer, and it does seem to show basic categories of my purchases reasonably correctly.
  • “Household Interests Data” lists categories accurately, except I don’t have or purchase collectible antiques, nor do I own a pet.

I didn’t see any information about my…

…education level, mortgage amount, or whether I’m an active investor with a portfolio greater than $150,000.

You might want to check out this site, see what they show about you, and suppress or opt out altogether if it disturbs you. It will give you insight about why you see or receive certain types of advertising, electronically or via postal mail.

You might then consider using Firefox with AdBlock Plus to avoid seeing ads, and installing Abine’s DoNotTrackMe to avoid at least some of this information collection and tracking. There are versions of AdBlock Plus for other browsers, but it was created for Firefox and at last look, the versions for other browsers weren’t as robust or full featured.

A late update (Thursday evening) in case you missed it: Another revelation from the Snowden files hits the airwaves, published in tandem at about 3:00 p.m. EDT by The Guardian, The New York Times, and ProPublica. Seems the safeguards I’ve been yapping at you about over several weeks have themselves been circumvented and compromised by the NSA and GCHQ.
The Guardian: US and UK spy agencies defeat privacy and security on the internet
The NYT: N.S.A. Foils Much Internet Encryption
ProPublica: Revealed: The NSA’s Secret Campaign to Crack, Undermine Internet Security

I feel safer already! Don’t you?

NEW UPDATE: How to remain secure against NSA surveillance (from The Guardian)

Photo by Keven Law from Los Angeles, USA (Watching you…watching me….), licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.