In a piece entitled “You for Sale,” Sunday’s New York Times raised important concerns about the data broker industry. Let us add some more perils and seek to reframe the debate about how to regulate Big Data.
Data brokers like Acxiom (and countless others) collect and mine a mind-boggling array of data about us, including Social Security numbers, property records, public-health data, criminal justice sources, car rentals, credit reports, postal and shipping records, utility bills, gaming, insurance claims, divorce records, online musings, browsing habits culled by behavioral advertisers, and the gold mine of drug- and food-store records. They scrape our social network activity, which with a little mining can reveal our undisclosed sexual preferences, religious affiliations, political views, and other sensitive information. They may integrate video footage of our offline shopping. With the help of facial-recognition software, data mining algorithms factor into our dossiers the over-the-counter medicines we pick up, the books we browse, and the pesticides we contemplate buying for our backyards. Our social media influence scores may make their way into the mix. Companies, such as Klout, measure our social media influence, usually on a scale from one to 100. They use variables like the number of our social media followers, frequency of updates, and number of likes, retweets, and shares. What’s being tracked and analyzed about our online and offline behavior is accelerating – with no sign of slowing down and no assured way to find out.
As the Times piece notes, businesses buy data-broker dossiers to classify those consumers worth pursuing and those worth ignoring (so-called “waste”). More often those already in an advantaged position get better deals and gifts while the less advantaged get nothing. The Times piece rightly raised concerns about the growing inequality that such use of Big Data produces. But far more is at stake.
Government is a major client for data brokers. More than 70 fusion centers mine data-broker dossiers to detect crimes, “threats,” and “hazards.” Individuals are routinely flagged as “threats.” Such classifications make their way into the “information-sharing environment,” with access provided to local, state, and federal agencies as well as private-sector partners. Troublingly, data-broker dossiers have no quality assurance. They may include incomplete, misleading, and false data. Let’s suppose a data broker has amassed a profile on Leslie McCann. Social media scraped, information compiled, and videos scanned about “Leslie McCann” might include information about jazz artist “Les McCann” as well as information about criminal with a similar name and age. Inaccurate Big Data has led to individuals’ erroneous inclusion on watch lists, denial of immigration applications, and loss of public benefits. Read More