What do data miners really know about us? We may soon find out.

The US Congress wants data miners to spill the beans about what they really know about all of us. It's about friggin' time.


Want to know what Acxiom, Intelius, Epsilon, and other huge data miners know about you? I know I do. And so does the US Congress – or, at least, the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus.

According to the New York Times, the Caucus just sent letters to nine of the largest data collectors on and off the Internet – including credit reporting agencies like Experian and Equifax and credit scoring companies like Fair Isaac. (Full disclosure: One of the companies being questioned is Meredith Corporation, a major US magazine publisher for whom I occasionally write.)

Per the Times: 

The letter asked each company to provide a list of all of its sources of data; a list of the specific kinds of consumer information, including ethnic, race or religious data, it collects; descriptions of the data collection methods used, like tracking of social network or mobile phone activity; explanations about each product and service the company has marketed to third parties since January 2009, and the type of data used in such products and services; details about whether any of the products or services are federally regulated; explanations about the security measures used to protect consumer data; as well as descriptions of the opt-out, data access, correction and deletion options the company offers consumers.

This group, lead by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Representative Joe Barton (R-Tex), is the same one responsible for the revelations two weeks ago about how often law enforcement agencies request subscriber data from wireless companies – at least 1.3 million times last year alone.

I anticipate similarly eye opening numbers from this request, assuming the data brokers comply. Since the committee doesn’t have subpoena power, the companies could ignore the letters – though I suspect they’d rather comply via letter than be called before Congress for a starring role on C-Span.

Interestingly, the New York Times’ Natasha Singer recently tried to obtain much of the same information directly from Acxiom, one of the hugest data miners on the planet, but was rebuffed. Acxiom collects this data and shares it with its corporate clients, but feels no obligation to share it with the people whose data it is collecting.

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