In issuing its orders, the FTC said that it would use the information the data brokers provided to inform its understanding of the privacy practices of the industry, which senior officials have identified as an area of particular concern in the agency's ongoing policy work on Internet privacy.
"The power of big data is the ability to make inferences on, you know, reasonably fine-grained groups of people. And that's the very thing that causes the privacy violation as well," says Paul Ohm, a senior policy adviser with the FTC. "You can have really, really, really aggregated data that we would all agree could never be violated in anything we would consider privacy. Turns out that's the data that's the least useful."
In the Senate, Rockefeller has been one of the leading voices calling for meaningful online privacy protections, though if any legislation with his name on it is to become law, it will have to win passage in the 113th Congress. Rockefeller has announced that he will retire after the end of his term in 2015, rather than seek reelection.
In the meantime, efforts to extract detailed information from industry players about their data-collection practices have been frustrated by a lack of specificity, according to Jones.
"What we're trying to understand is what exactly is this information people are collecting, the companies are collecting, and what are they selling it for," Jones says. "The concerns that are being raised on the committee are no one really knows what this information is. We've had plenty of meetings where individuals will come in and talk about the benefits on the marketing side, because that's what we're focusing on, and how it helps drive the growth of the Internet and it's very helpful for you to find the right product that you need. But what we're not hearing is well, how specific is this information? Where is it being collected from? I think it's important for consumers and for Congress to understand really what this information is. And at this point it's essentially a black box."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.