By Tom Bergin
I’m 57, with a 30-year-old wife, a fairly new hot water boiler, an old-style television, a petrol car and no kids. Actually, none of that is true. But that is what you might believe if you purchased access to my data from the world’s largest information broker by market value
The recent revelation that data miner Cambridge Analytica Ltd. improperly accessed 50 million Facebook users’ personal data has heightened public concern about the way companies harvest and use our personal data.
I asked Arkansas-based Acxiom Corp., which earns over $800 million a year selling consumer profiles to the world’s largest companies, what data and insights it held on me.
In Europe and the U.S., companies like Acxiom are allowed to collect data from public and other sources about us. European privacy rules, which are due to be strengthened in coming months, require all data gatherers to disclose to any European who asks what information they hold on them. U.S. law doesn’t give Americans the right to this level of disclosure.
The result of my inquiry shows how, even with little raw data, companies attempt to build detailed pictures of individuals’ finances, relationships, personal interests and purchasing tastes.
These profiles now power the elaborate machinery that delivers advertising across the internet, and can also be used to determine what political issues people are interested in and how they might vote.
The question is: How accurate are the pictures they sketch?
“AFFLUENT FUN SEEKER”
Acxiom – like its rivals – operates by gathering publicly available information from sources like the electoral roll, which gives individuals’ addresses, and land registry data, which provides details on home ownership such as purchase price and if there is a mortgage on the property.
It also buys data from companies that conduct online surveys, as well as websites where you forgot to tick ‘don’t share with third parties’ and other sources. This data is then put into a proprietary model, which produces a list of data points and propensities, such as the likelihood a consumer might visit a betting shop.
Acxiom sells access to these profiles to companies that wish to target advertising at potential customers. Acxiom doesn’t have a political arm like Cambridge Analytica does, but the two companies do compete for commercial customers.
Facebook, in the wake of the scandal over how it handles personal information, said on Wednesday it would end its partnerships with several large data brokers who help advertisers target people on the social network. Shares in Acxiom traded down more than 10 percent to $25 following Facebook’s announcement.
The results for a single individual obviously don’t tell us too much about the accuracy of a database that Acxiom says contains 47 million UK profiles and insights into 700 million consumers worldwide.
Also, it seems I am a bad data subject since I usually opt out when asked to give companies data sharing rights
“Where we have more self-reported, privacy-compliant data about individuals, we can be more accurate. In your case, we held very little of this data and the majority of the variables linked to you, are modelled, based on both your postcode and the household history,” Acxiom said in a statement.
My Acxiom profile has around 750 individual data fields under a dozen categories from “household composition” to “employment & income” and “lifestyle & interests.” It categorizes me as an “affluent fun-seeker.”. The accuracy of that description depends on your definition, I suppose, but some of the information is plain wrong.
To start with, I’m 46 years old, not 57. I won’t reveal my wife’s age, but I will confirm that when I got married at age 34, it wasn’t to a teenager. Two children mean we’re not “empty nesters,” I drive a diesel car and our boiler is more than 15 years old, not less than five years as Acxiom identifies it as.
That could be a disappointment for the companies including Tesco supermarket, Twitter, Ford Motor Company and Facebook to whom Acxiom said it may have provided my data in the past year. Or maybe not.
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