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Big data companies collect, mine and sell 75k personal details on each customer

Published time: May 14, 2014 17:55
Edited time: May 14, 2014 18:29
Reuters/Rick Wilking

Reuters/Rick Wilking

While Americans debate how to rein in the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, private companies are gathering massive amounts of data on individuals.

According to a report by Politico, a new Senate survey has found that commercial data brokers are collecting up to 75,000 data points on each consumer they track in the United States. This information can include simple preferences, such as your favorite sports, but can also involve facts about your health and lifestyle – all of which can be sold to other companies for profit.

While some states have moved to protect consumer privacy, federal efforts in Washington DC have languished. In January, President Obama mentioned the importance of safeguarding citizens’ information, saying that privacy advocates need to be concerned with data collection by private companies, not just the government.

The challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone,” Obama said in January. “Corporations of all shapes and sizes track what you buy, store and analyze our data and use it for commercial purposes.

Despite the president’s statements – and his previous push for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights – the administration has done little to introduce proposals for Congress, while lawmakers themselves have also largely stayed on the sidelines. Generally speaking, Republicans have come out against any regulations on private businesses, while Democrats have steered clear of the issue in order to avoid conflicts with tech industry donors.

One exception has been Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who told Politico that Americans should be just as focused on private data collection as they are on the NSA. He has proposed a bill that would limit data brokers, but did not seem particularly optimistic about its chances.

Once we decided we’re going with the Internet, we gave up our privacy,” he told the outlet. “It’s always the double side: It’s the greatest discovery ever made and also one of the worst things that ever happened.”

Complicating the situation is the fact that tech companies have lobbied hard against the idea that their information-gathering should be regulated – instead, they have come out strong against the NSA and have pushed for action in that sphere. Many argue that their work will lead to health and safety benefits, in addition to convenience, and that regulations would put a hold on innovation.

This is a situation in which technology, new data uses and new approaches are occurring and evolving very rapidly, and so if parameters were engraved in legislative stone, it could easily be the wrong measure, the wrong safeguards … and may very well inhibit the development of useful and socially desirable businesses and technology,” Alan Raul, a lawyer for technology companies and a former member of George W. Bush’s White House privacy board, said to Politico.

Already, cameras at various stores can take your photo, send them to other companies where you are identified, and keep track of your movements. Other potential advancements include prescription drug bottles that notify your doctor of whether or not you’re taking your medicine, or TV boxes that know what you’re doing while watching a program and on-air advertisements related to your activity.

There is some activity at the state level, with Utah looking to restrict the storage of license plate photos taken by hidden cameras. Meanwhile, 12 states have banned schools and employers from forcing students and workers to give them access to their social media accounts.

Still, action at the national level is missing. The rapid advance of technology even has White House advisers wondering if some of the basic ideas behind the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights are already outdated. As noted by Politico, numerous devices are constantly gathering photos and information.

As more discussion looks inevitable, Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the devices’ ultimate purpose.

Are they going to be little snitches in our pockets, or are they going to be under our control and serving us?” he asked.