Will Transparency Help Big Data Face Down Its Critics?

Acxiom, Others Let Consumers Peek at Their Profiles in Bid to Improve Public Perception

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FTC Commissioner Julie Brill
 FTC Commissioner Julie Brill Credit: Bloomberg

Big data has a big problem.

They're the lifeblood of a marketing industry bent on efficiency and accurate targeting, but data-mining companies have for decades operated under a shroud of mystery and are not so easily trusted when it comes to consumers and privacy activists. Data giant Acxiom is aiming to quell concerns with a little transparency in the hopes it will pacify lawmakers threatening to curb the industry's practices and preempt heightened consumer concern about data security and privacy.

But will opening up the curtain be enough to calm jitters over how much information commercial interests collect? Can it stave off legislation by a government that, despite being concerned about privacy law, harvests large amounts of commercial data for its own surveillance efforts?

Acxiom's solution -- the just-launched website AboutTheData -- 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 about the merits of data improving people's lives.

The initiative addresses a call made by Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill, who has been prodding the data industry to be more forthcoming about what it knows and how it operates. She's even branded her initiative "Reclaim Your Name." And if her initial reaction is any indication, the site might be doing its job. Ms. Brill visited AboutTheData.com and called the site "easy to use" and "intuitive." "We no longer want to receive mass marketing -- getting bombarded with ads that have no relevancy to our lives -- because it's intrusive and wastes our time. That's why companies want to use data about you to personalize and shape your experiences with them," the home page explains. And if you want to opt out of having your data used by Acxiom, it warns: "Instead of getting a great offer on a hotel package in your favorite vacation spot, you might see an ad for the latest, greatest weight-loss solution."

Her cautious praise could inspire other data firms to embark on similar projects aimed at transparency and appeasing government.

Bryan Kennedy, CEO of Acxiom competitor Epsilon, said the Acxiom effort is "consistent with where the industry has been moving, and moving at sort of a careful pace." Epsilon, another 40-plus-year-old data compiler, delivers a paper report that reveals the same type of data to those who fill out a form and pay $5. Epsilon made that transparency offering available in 2012, a year after a very-public data breach exposed names and email addresses in databases of its clients, including Capital One and Best Buy.

That same year a wave of online privacy-bill proposals hit Congress, most intended to give consumers more control over digital-data tracking and limit the ability of corporations to track online. None has been passed. Federal entities, however, including the Federal Trade Commission, are undergoing inspections of data firms. In December the FTC asked nine data brokers, including Acxiom, to detail their data collection and use practices.

Justin Brookman, director for Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Consumer Privacy, is one who thinks the Acxiom initiative might win the company points -- at least on the legislative front. AboutTheData.com "buys them some goodwill ... on the Hill," he said, but "most consumers aren't going to know about this."

The site is largely limited to Acxiom's third-party data, but not digital-behavior data. Consumers are equallym -- if not more -- concerned about the reams of online, social and mobile data being collected as they browse the web and use internet-connected mobile devices. Pew Research Center just published a report showing 86% of internet users have attempted to obscure digital actions by clearing cookies or encrypting email.

BlueKai and Exelate, which peddle behavioral data for online ad targeting, also have data-transparency systems. A visit to BlueKai's consumer-aimed online registry automatically pulls up interest segments associated with a particular user. Web users are placed in targetable audience segments if BlueKai partner MasterCard says they've bought concert tickets or domestic air travel, for example.

Like Acxiom's new platform, the BlueKai and Exelate systems allow people to opt-out from being tracked. For years, Google and Yahoo have unveiled behavioral data they store to enable ad targeting on their sites and in their ad networks and exchanges. Google lets people check out information it's gleaned based on recent search history. Did you check out kayaking tours? It might peg you as someone interested in boating.

Transparency aside, there's a lot of data consumers care about that won't be exposed at AboutTheData.com, such as customer-relationship-management data owned by Acxiom clients that use the firm to manage proprietary loyalty programs. Concerned consumers, however, may find a silver lining on the Acxiom site: The accuracy of the data varies widely (see sidebar).

Mr. Brookman was among many who checked out AboutTheData only to find the information it revealed to be incomplete and, in part, incorrect. The relative lack of specificity in the information could serve to calm consumer concern, he argued. "It's reassuring, in some ways. [Acxiom] is not as well-oiled a machine as everyone thinks it is."

And in fact, the site seems to acknowledge that, encouraging visitors to correct erroneous data. Consumer compliance could yield the data giant a benefit -- the ability to hone its targeting -- potentially greater than good PR and corporate-affairs goodwill.

The idea behind AboutTheData is for the organization to "become more consumer-oriented," said CEO Scott Howe. Right now, he said, "consumers don't know who Acxiom is."

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