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Where your personal data goes when you're not looking

Robert L. Mitchell | Aug. 6, 2014
There's a lot of consumer data floating around, but in many businesses it's still fairly disorganised.

For Adler, who helped to develop the program at Intellius a few years ago, the philosophy was simple: "I shouldn't have to guess what information they have and are sharing. I should be able to just look."

More recently, data aggregator Acxiom launched its website, which lets validated users see six categories of "core data" used to place them into demographic and interest categories for marketing purposes. Consumers can delete or correct the baseline data, which automatically updates modeled data about the person. However, they can't view the interest and demographic categories to which they've been assigned.

There's a good reason for that, says Adler: The categories and predictive scores used by some companies would be offensive to people, and they would want to know why they were put into those. "No one likes to be labeled and stereotyped, but that's what marketing does. It's about segmentation, and that's often politically incorrect." The industry, he says, will need to figure out how to segment markets accurately and still maintain some semblance of political correctness.

Going forward, Feldman expects people to become even more engaged on privacy issues with the companies with which they transact businesses. "What's changed is now everyone is concerned about privacy. It's much more top of mind."

But companies shouldn't leave it to the lawyers to handle all of the consumer privacy details, says Adler. "The legal department is the wrong place to make decisions about innovation." If the company doesn't have this discussion, it "will either take the conservative approach or innovate in completely irresponsible ways," he says. But things can't keep operating the way they have in the past. One thing is certain, Adler says: "If companies continue to do this in an opaque way, regulators will step in."

Offline/online convergence: It's complicated
Just a few decades ago businesses knew very little about their customers beyond name, address and what they bought — if they used a credit card. Data aggregators like Acxiom and Experian provided personalized demographic data to marketers — that you are 42 years old, own a truck, like to golf, are married and so on — to help companies better target advertising and marketing dollars to customers and prospects. That offline data was — and still is — culled from public records, surveys and what Acxiom chief global privacy officer Jennifer Barrett Glasgow calls "summarized or aggregated purchase information."

The data about you is personally identifiable information (PII), but gets transformed into generalized, but still personally identifiable, demographic data before it's used. For example, Acxiom might license the subscriber list from a golfing magazine as an input into its scoring mechanism, but the data aggregator agrees not to identify you as a subscriber. Instead, it uses the information and data points from many other sources — your golf club purchases, for instance — to determine that you fit into its list of people who like to golf.


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