Summary:

A data broker tried to show us what it knows about our lives — but the transparency ploy quickly fell flat with both consumers and privacy advocates. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get points for effort.

Magician, tricks

The opaque world of data brokers was supposed to get more transparent last week when Acxiom, a company that compiles information about consumers, launched a website where people can see the data it holds. Unfortunately, the effort fell flat as people groused that the site didn’t work, or that the data was blatantly wrong or “biologically impossible” — as when the site told a 26 year old woman that she was the mother of two teenage boys.

More seriously, the New York Times suggested that the company was holding back by not showing people sensitive information about their health or family life. The Financial Times concluded likewise, and cited privacy advocates who warned that Acxiom’s new site, Aboutthedata.com, may be a tool for the company to gather even more data.

Such doubt is also shared by Sarah Downey, a lawyer at Abine, a privacy company that provides online masking tools.

“My first reaction is that it’s good. It’s good for data brokers to be more open and honest about what they’re collecting. But that’s not all they have — there’s a discrepancy between what marketers can buy and what people can see about themselves,” said Downey in a recent phone interview.

All of this suggests Acxiom’s initiative may have backfired: the disclosures don’t seem to be reassuring consumers, and nor are they likely fend off the FTC, which has been making noises about regulating the data collection industry.

Taking a longer view, however, Acxiom’s half-hearted attempt to teach consumers about data may eventually pay off. Keep in mind that overall data literacy in society is extremely low right now, which means that consumers are continually riled up by privacy panic headlines — even as they embrace sites Facebook, Google and many other data-driven companies because the services they offer are not only convenient, but free of charge.

In this context, Acxiom’s disclosures — tricky and incomplete as they may be — could prove to be a useful first step in helping consumers and politicians discuss privacy in a less hysterical tone. It may even help lay the groundwork for a pragmatic debate about whether it’s possible to preserve privacy while also enjoying the economic benefits of big data.

In the meantime, Acxiom’s move is also being welcomed by others in the industry like Joseph Galarneau, the CEO of Mezzobit, a company that hopes to promote trust through good “data hygiene.” Its work includes creating a non-profit group that will monitor and provide compliance on how companies track, retain and encrypt data.

“Data is a necessary lubricant for the internet,” said Galarneau, adding that data is an essential part of making money for many companies. He commends Acxiom for “taking the bull by the horns,” and adds that its first attempt at transparency was clumsy in part because companies like Acxiom are not used to interacting with consumers directly.

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