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Congressional Privacy Caucus takes aim at data brokers

The caucus, made up of both Democrats and Republicans, has requested information from companies that collect, analyze, and sell consumer information.


The bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus has sent inquiry letters to several companies regarding their practices in so-called data brokering.

Caucus co-chairmen Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Bartin (R-Texas), as well as six other lawmakers, yesterday contacted credit reporting agencies Experian and Equifax; marketing services firms Acxiom and Epsilon; and background check provider Intelius, on how they collect, analyze, and then sell consumer information. The lawmakers are particularly interested in the information the companies collect and how they go about it.

The New York Times was first to report on the letter.

Consumer information is floating around both online and offline, and companies that can access that information and then create an ultradetailed profile of an individual, can sell that for quite a bit of cash. The information can be used for marketing purposes and for understanding current customers better. In other words, more data can often mean more cash for companies.

And serious cash at that. According to the lawmakers, data brokering has become a "multibillion dollar industry" in the U.S. as the companies behind it improve their dossiers on individuals. At one time, basic demographic information, such as where people lived, their age, and gender was valuable. Now that data is a sliver of what data brokers are collecting, the lawmakers argue.

Privacy advocates are concerned. Individuals are having all facets of their lives tossed into a massive database, and based on their activities, are categorized into different groups. The potential negative privacy implications of that are easy to see.

"By combining data from numerous offline and online sources, data brokers have developed hidden dossiers on almost every U.S. consumer," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the data brokers. "This large scale aggregation of the personal information of hundreds of millions of American citizens raises a number of serious privacy concerns."

The Congressional Privacy Caucus does not have subpoena power, so the contacted companies will not be forced to respond to the inquiry. However, Rep. Markey told the Times yesterday that he's confident he'll hear back from the companies. Acxiom Chief Privacy Officer Jennifer Barrett Glasgow told the Times that her company is "happy to provide whatever information we can to further inform interested parties."