The FTC’s privacy recommendations: Too little, too late

The good news: The Feds have finally weighed in on Do Not Track and other privacy threats. The bad news: The wimps won.

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… that would provide consumers with access to information about them held by a data broker. To further increase transparency, the Commission calls on data brokers that compile data for marketing purposes to explore creating a centralized website where data brokers could (1) identify themselves to consumers and describe how they collect and use consumer data and (2) detail the access rights and other choices they provide with respect to the consumer data they maintain.

So, in other words, the FTC wants those 800-odd data brokers, along with massive information collecting machines like Lexis-Nexis and Choicepoint, to tell you what dirt they’ve got on you. And if the data broker says you have zero rights to change or delete your data? Too friggin’ bad.

Actually, it’s worse: The FTC merely wants the brokers to “explore” creating a central database. (Data brokers to FTC: We followed your recommendation and explored building a database, then we decided it was too much of a hassle. See ya.)

Even if such legislation comes to pass, it could offer fewer rights than we currently have with credit reporting agencies. Highly flawed though they may be, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) do give consumers some useful benefits – like the ability to obtain free annual reports from the three big reporting agencies, correct inaccuracies in the data, and to put fraud flags on your account if your identity has been stolen. They also offer the ability to opt out of having your financial information sold for marketing purposes (though the agencies mostly manage to skirt that one).

It’s pretty clear you can’t opt out of credit reporting and expect to get a credit card, or a mortgage, or even rent an apartment in some cases. Many jobs require you to pass a background check, of which a credit report is usually a key element. If you want their stuff (credit, a job, insurance) you have to play by their rules (data collection).

Now imagine a world where the credit reporting agencies did more than just rate whether you’re qualified for a low-interest loan or a new store credit card. Imagine a credit bureau for everything, based on a profile concocted from your Web activity. (And not necessarily even from your Web activity so much as your browser’s, which could be generated by a number of different users.)

Visit the wrong Web sites, get placed into the wrong profile “bucket,” and suddenly your insurance rates skyrocket or your mortgage refinance gets nixed or you can’t get a security clearance for that job you desperately need. No one can tell you why, because the decisions were based on data that may have nothing to do with how big a health, credit, or security risk you actually are.

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