If Marketing Data Can Fight Terrorism, How Private Is It?

Journalists, Watchdog Groups Keeping an Eye on Data Companies

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Acxiom's Kim Weisensee
Acxiom's Kim Weisensee Credit: Acxiom

Recent terrorist attacks across the globe could rekindle discussions about data brokers and their roles in government surveillance. Not surprisingly, Acxiom, one of the best-known of the bunch, has been mentioned in such discussion, including in a Nov. 22 article in The Northwest Arkansas Gazette; Acxiom is headquartered in Arkansas.

The story, which notes that Acxiom declined to comment, suggests that data available from firms such as Acxiom "is also useful for creating profiles of terror suspects and helping investigators find accomplices."

When the FBI worked with Acxiom after the Sept. 11 attacks, the agency searched through information that the company received from both public records and the information the company handles for its clients.

"We had all of this crazy stuff that we were able to put into one big database and try to figure out who these bad guys were and who they were associates with," said [Charles Morgan] who was Acxiom's lead executive in 2001."

Not mentioned in the Gazette piece, Acxiom stood to profit as a contractor supplying data services as part of a post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security initiative in which the Transportation Services Administration would provide data on passengers and verify their identification by matching it against consumer information stored by Acxiom. The program was fraught with concerns about consumer privacy from the start. JetBlue and Acxiom came under fire in a class action lawsuit for allegedly committing deceptive trade practices. The program was nixed in 2004 and that lawsuit was dismissed in 2005.

Acxiom also declined to comment for this Ad Age story.

As the Gazette piece notes, "It is unknown whether any tech and data companies are assisting intelligence agencies with their investigations of the Paris attacks."

The article merely seems to use recent attacks and subsequent intelligence efforts as a way to raise the question again: "Are companies collecting and storing consumer data in bed with government?" Most of us are aware of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other tech giants and their public battles against National Security Administration data requests in this post-Snowden era.

The fact is that Acxiom is among the largest purveyors of personally identifiable data, and is quite vocal about that when it presents itself to marketers (not so much when questioned about privacy issues). A Nov. 17 company blog post by Kim Weisensee, who heads Acxiom's agency partnership team, highlights what Acxiom now calls its "people-based" marketing data, stating, "With other marketing data providers or publishers, I might just be a cookie, device ID, phone number, email, or viewer. But if I was looking at people-based data, it's clear that I'm Kim. I live in Chicago. I'm a female. I have one cell phone number, three email addresses, and I don't have any kids or own a car. I'm a person that uses media. I'm not a bunch of media impressions that may or may not be the same person."

There's no question this type of personally identifiable information is valuable to government agencies for terrorism-related efforts, among other purposes. Whether or not Acxiom or other data purveyors are actually handing over their data to the U.S. or other governments is not clear, but we can expect journalists and watchdogs to continue spotlighting obvious links between the data they gather for marketers and the information coveted by intelligence agencies.

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