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Transparency: The New Consumer Data Service Emerges

Enliken System Will Help Data Firms Reveal What They Know to Consumers

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The jury is out on whether it's a smart idea for data companies to expose what they know to curious consumers. But it looks like more firms that harvest, manage and analyze consumer information for marketing purposes will be joining data giant Acxiom in its recent data transparency move. Enliken, which aims to give consumers more privacy controls over the data the create and share with businesses, is set to launch a transparency platform for use by data companies and brands with consumer data.

Enliken CEO Marc Guldimann calls the software product "transparency as a service."

Similar to online tools from data providers such as BlueKai and Exelate, which show consumers what audience segments they are part of in marketing databases, the Enliken platform reveals demographic categories, shopping categories and other data. Interested consumers need only enter a mobile number or email address which then verifies via a subsequent text message or email that they are who they say they are.

Clients are in discussions to sign on to use Enliken's $1,000-per-month software, said Mr. Guldimann. While he would not name them, the demo site used to present the software before launch was branded with the Brilig logo. Brilig is a digital data provider owned by CRM consultancy Merkle.

The concept of providing people with a glimpse into what data companies collect and share about them came to the fore earlier this month when Acxiom launched AboutTheData.com. The site invites visitors to enter their names, addresses, and the last four digits of their social security numbers to access a portal that reveals the information the company has gathered on them. This includes age, estimated income, residence, ethnicity, marital status and which categories of product purchases -- from food to home furnishings -- a consumer has made via mail order.

Acxiom's is not the first initiative by the industry to show consumers what companies know (or think they know) about them. It is, however, ambitious in its accessibility, simplicity and undisguised pitch to consumers touting how data improves people's lives.

Acxiom and Enliken's recent offerings answer a call made by Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill, who has prodded the data industry to be more forthcoming about what it knows and how it operates. She's branded her mission "Reclaim Your Name."

While Ms. Brill called Acxiom's system "easy to use" and "intuitive," it and the other transparency tools provide only a limited view, masking the far deeper and more complex data labyrinthe existing beneath the exposed surface.

For instance, while a consumer could use these systems to learn that marketers peg her as someone who bought lawn and garden supplies and intends to purchase life insurance, these so-called transparency platforms obscure the data used to inform the categorizations. They don't show store transactions, website visits, social-media comments, loyalty-card usage and other information that is compiled by data firms to help them paint the "lawn and garden buyer" portrait.

"I don't think it's disingenuous for companies like Brilig and Exelate and Bluekai to say, 'Here's what we have,' because this is all they have," said Mr. Guldimann.

However, the Enliken platform will eventually enable consumers to view some of the often richer, proprietary CRM data a firm like Merkle or Acxiom might manage for its brand and retail clients. In such cases, entering a phone number or email address definitely would be necessary, said Mr. Guldimann.

"For example," he said, "if you went to General Motors and said, 'What do you know about me,' they would say, 'First prove that you are who you say you are by proving you own the email address or phone number we have associated with your profile.' "

For now, the Enliken system only shows segments associated with data gathered online.

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