Acxiom is a data broker firm that collects information about consumers by prowling public records, collecting customer surveys and warranty forms, and monitoring credit card purchases. Acxiom then sells this information to marketers in aggregated form to help them target offers to the right customers. If, for example, a marketer wants to promote its credit card to a set of consumers in a high income bracket living in a certain region, the marketer might approach Acxiom for the contact information of the consumers who meet their parameters.
For over 40 years Acxiom has collected consumer information, and it’s grown adept at inferring personal information from seemingly anonymous data. For example, the company can use the data stored about you to determine your clothing size and whether you are into gambling. Acxiom maintains a database on about 190 million people and 126 million households in the US and 500 million consumers worldwide.
In the midst of our heightened privacy concerns as spurred by the recent NSA scandal, Acxiom began making it a priority to mold its image into one of a transparent company willing to heed your concerns over your privacy. So when Acxiom announced it would soon make its massive stores of consumer data available online, I expected Acxiom to provide something useful. I expected that Acxiom would create a helpful online portal where we could browse through all the interesting data Acxiom has stored on us throughout the years. But in the end when Acxiom launched its data portal, I found it lacking in genuine care for consumers. Acxiom’s new site for viewing the information marketers have on you is nothing more than a way for Acxiom to save face.
A Self-Serving Site
At the top of Acxiom’s AboutTheData.com portal I found a startling question posted in the largest, most distinctive text on the page: “Who are you?” Acxiom asked. Considering that this site was designed to give me the scoop on who marketers think I am, this question threw me. Acxiom then launched a spiel about what I can do for marketers:
If you want to get the best advertising delivered to you, based on your actual interests, start here. Tell us who you are so we can show you the information used to fuel many of the marketing offers you receive from advertisers using Acxiom’s digital marketing data.”
If I “want the best advertising delivered to me?” Acxiom, I thought we were on the same page here: you were going to tell me what marketers knew, and then I was going to tell you to withhold the information that was too creepy. I’m not trying to help you de-clutter my information to make it even easier for marketers to gauge who I am and what I may or may not be interested in having hawked to me.
After asking me to authenticate my identity with my name, address, birthday, email address, and the last four digits of my social security number, Acxiom warned me against opting out of its marketing services:
Before You Opt-Out, Consider This: Opting out of Acxiom’s online and/or offline marketing data will not prevent you from receiving marketing materials. Instead of receiving ads that are relevant to your interests, you will see more generic ads with no information to tailor content. For example, instead of getting a great offer on a hotel package in your favorite vacation spot, you might see an ad for the latest, greatest weight loss solution.”
Thanks for the heads-up, Acxiom, but your words aren’t exactly true. While Acxiom sure is important in the data brokerage industry, it is not the only firm providing marketers aggregate consumer data. If I opt out of Acxiom’s services, it means I’ll stop receiving tailored offers, all right, but only from Acxiom’s clients. My mailbox will still fill up with credit card offers and coupons made specially for me, only they’ll be delivered through Acxiom’s competitors.
For a website that was supposed to help me understand which of my personal information has fallen into the hands of marketers, this site is certainly self-serving.
Not only is it using AboutTheData.com to lure consumers to approve of its data brokerage services, Acxiom is also using the site to mislead consumers through imprecise language and missing company information. No where on AboutTheData.com does Acxiom go into detail about its services for marketers and how it uses consumer data, a peculiarity Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, picked up on. “It does not give an accurate picture of how this works,” Chester told the New York Times. “The language is so innocuous that the average consumer would think there’s no privacy concern.”
How can a website designed to inform consumers about their privacy make it seem like privacy is no concern?
While AboutTheData.com provides consumers some of the personal information stored about them in Acxiom’s database, it doesn’t provide all of it. According to The New York Times, the site leaves out some data that is available to its corporate clients, including extremely personal information such as whether a person is a ‘potential inheritor’ or whether some has a ‘senior parent.’ Some consumers reported to The New York Times that upon logging into AboutTheData.com, no information was available to them at all. Considering that Acxiom stores about 1,500 data points per person, I’d say it’s more likely the company withholds data than not possess it.
More Transparency Is Needed
If Acxiom truly wants to make its data collection practices more transparent to consumers, it needs to fill AboutTheData.com with more information. In particular, to make its business easier to understand Acxiom needs to do these three things:
- Make all of the information it sells to marketers available to consumers on AboutTheData.com
- Explain, explicitly, the methods Acxiom uses to track consumer habits
- In language that does not push consumers to become a fan of Acxiom’s marketing services, explain where consumers might be concerned about their privacy
If Acxiom, the leader of the data brokerage industry, can make its practices more transparent, it could demonstrate to other data brokers how to take the first step toward helping consumers understand what information is being collected about them.
What do you think of Acxiom and AboutTheData.com? Does it meet assuage your privacy concerns? Share with us in the comments section!