The biggest problem isn’t the data collection, per se – though that is a huge problem. The bigger problem is what happens as a result of the data that is collected: the inferences these companies draw from that data, which may not be at all accurate but could still have a huge impact on our lives.
Just as companies like Fair Isaac compile disparate bits of your financial data, toss it into a proprietary algorithm, and come up with your credit score -- which then determines whether you qualify for a mortgage, among other things -- data miners could do the same with your Tweets, Facebook posts, comments, purchases, and Web surfing histories. They could come up with scores for ranking your hireability, marketability, likelihood of filing an insurance claim, political or religious leanings, and so on. There is no limit to what some clever corporate entity could do with this information.
At this point in time, all of that happens invisibly, in the background, without anyone outside the data mining industry (and The Wall Street Journal) really paying much attention. The Congressional letters are a way to open Pandora’s box and see what’s inside.
It should be noted that most of these companies already must follow some kind of Federal rules for disclosure – usually the Fair Credit Reporting Act or the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act. But those laws predate things like Google, Facebook, Twitter and the advent of Big Data, all of which change the privacy landscape enormously.
We need, at the very least, complete transparency into all of this data. As consumers, we also need the right to control it and correct it as needed, and even make a buck or two off of it.
It is our data, after all.
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