Further adventures in data mining, Or welcome to my Lear Jet lifestyle

Data miners like Acxiom know a lot about you -- or at least they think they do. We may soon find out exactly how much.

Good news. Acxiom plans to let us all peek under the kimono and get a gander at what it is they know about us. Which is to say, quite a bit.

Never heard of Acxiom? Let me clue you in. Every Web tracking company out there, including Google and Facebook, are punks compared to Acxiom. They’ve been at the data mining business so long they have files on Cain and Abel. Like fellow giants ChoicePoint and Intelius, Acxiom combines information from multiple sources – including public records databases, supermarket loyalty cards, warranty programs, mail order catalogs, and magazine subscriber lists, to name a few – and rolls them into broad profiles of consumers that it sells to banks, insurers, and direct marketers.

Now, of course, Acxiom is also gathering online data via tracking cookies. And they’re merging their data with Facebook’s so the social network can do a better job of targeting ads to us based on stuff we’ve bought in real life, and not just stuff we clicked the Like button on. (Insert paranoid rant no. 327 here.)

Yesterday, the Financial Times and CNET reported that Acxiom plans to allow consumers to actually look at all the bits of data they’ve gathered about us. To which I say, about friggin’ time. Though Acxiom is better than some large data brokers when it comes to transparency, they’re not exactly great at it. So this is a welcome step, one other data brokers may be forced to follow, if the FTC and Congress have their way.

What’s in your Acxiom file? We don’t know yet – the company is still working out the kinks of how it can disclose this data without opening up everyone to identity theft. But you can get a hint of what Acxiom thinks you're like by perusing its PersonicX database, which lumps every US adult into one of 70-odd “clusters.”

The names of the clusters are pretty damned amusing: Are you a Young Workboots (cluster #58), a Married Sophisticate (#18), or just Truckin’ & Stylin’ (#41)? You might be an Urban Scrambler (#61) with Kids & Clout (#11), or a Rural Rover (#60) with a Lavish Lifestyle (#7). And if you’re about to kick the bucket – or already have, but apparently haven’t noticed – you might be Rural Everlasting (#64).

To find your cluster you have to provide information like your age, marital status, number of children, income and net worth; Acxiom says it won’t store this data or associate it with your browser. I filled out the form with my real info. Here’s the group I allegedly fit in:

acxiom cluster 600p.png

Yep, that’s me all over. The tailored suit, the well coiffed hair, the private jet, the trophy wife. Uh huh.

Per the text:

“These households are wealthy couples with mostly teenage children and the minivans to move them. They enjoy very high incomes and educations. The are likely to shop at Kohl’s and online…. While they are often active outdoors with activities such as bicycling, roller blading or jogging, they are just as likely to enjoy time around the house barbecuing and entertaining friends.”

Sorry, Acxiom. Where I live, people who own Lear Jets do not shop at Kohl’s. People who live in houses with wheels on the bottom shop at Kohl’s. Beknighted individuals who own their own private aircraft don’t do their own barbecuing; they have people for that. And minivans – seriously?

Once again you gotta wonder where they’re coming up with this s**t. Two weeks ago another Web tracker pegged me as a “trendy homemaker” and a “soccer mom.” Now I’m Donald Trump with a Honda Odyssey.

But here’s the rub. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that they’re wrong – they’re still going to use that data to make decisions about you and me. Today those decisions are about what ads to show you. Tomorrow, they might be about whether to hire or insure you, how much to charge you, or whether you’re allowed into some special membership/club/whatever.

Remember, it doesn’t matter who you are, it’s who they think you are that counts. So it’s a good idea to find out, eh?

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blogeSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld onTwitter and Facebook.

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