Today the Federal Trade Commission called for a new law that would allow U.S. residents to review the immense amounts of information being collected about them through their use of the Internet, smartphones and other digital technologies. The proposal was outlined in an online privacy report that was released this week.
By most accounts, the 57-page report was fairly tough—especially when you consider it came from a consumer protection agency that typically uses a “voluntary principles” approach to the industry, rather than strict regulation. Among the report’s strongest points was a call for Congress to enact legislation to regulate the “data brokers” that profit from the collection, trade and sale of information that affects your ability to find a job, secure a lease, get a loan, qualify for insurance, etc. The proposed legislation is important because it would give consumers access to the information that was collected about them, as well as allow them to correct and update the data. This is particularly important given the fact that last year the Associated Press found that data brokers often store incorrect or outdated information—including criminal records.
It’s bad enough that we’re bombarded with online ads that ‘target’ us based on consumer profiles the companies have purchased. Imagine trying to find an apartment or a job with an inaccurate credit score or criminal record. Try qualifying for insurance with inaccurate ‘pre-existing condition’ on your record. While it’s hard for anyone–if you’re brown/ black, poor, a non Native English speaker or young (and the list goes on…) it’s not an exaggeration to say the answer is more likely IMPOSSIBLE!
Data compiling is a big business, and it generates big profits! These companies exist solely to compile and sell highly personal information about us—yet there is no real way for the average person to find out what they’ve collected about us, or if it’s accurate. Earlier this year at the 2012 Knowledge Exchange (a project we partner with Consumer’s Union on) we learned about these companies. I can still remember the presentation and how the room grew i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y silent as 20 black and brown organizers learned how these companies collect and sell information about our age, gender, income, home value and personal interests—based on the web sites we’ve made purchases at or just visited.
I thought about this today as I read the FTC report. It’s something we’ll continue to follow at CMJ and we hope you will too.