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9 data-mining companies testify to Congress about selling your information

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It’s one thing to know that there are shadowy companies out there, compiling your Internet footprint—what’s publicly available on your Facebook account, for instance—to sell to advertisers.

It’s another when they’re compelled by Congress to admit it.

That’s what happened this summer, though the companies’ responses were only made public Thursday. Led by Declaration of Internet Freedom signee Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Congress’s Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus instructed nine alleged “data broker” companies to reveal their practices.

Surprise: Nobody who collects your personal information thinks they’re doing anything wrong.

All but one of the companies rejected the label of “data broker,” for instance, instead preferring labels like “data provider” or “data analyzer.” And all but one insisted that data-mining practices, like going to Facebook to match users’ names with their addresses in public record, is totally fair game.

Many were open about compiling information in the public record. Epsilon, for instance, uses records from utility companies, magazine publishers, and public property records to keep tabs on whether a user has recently moved.

Others adopted a more defensive tone without actually denying that they create detailed profiles of potential customers. Harte-Hanks, for instance, repeatedly denied being “a true data broker” but also admitted acquiring “consumer information made available through the social network providers.”

Intelius, which stressed that it “shares your concern about consumer privacy” and also “is not a data broker,” said it only compiled data from “public record and other generally available data sources.” It provided a partial list of such data sources: “LinkedIn, Facebook, Blogspot, Twitter, Wordpress, MySpace and YouTube.” Besides, it claimed, doing so can help consumers “reconnect with friends and relatives” and “get to know their neighborhood.”

That’s not the only company that argued that the practice of data mining was actually positive for consumers, since targeted advertising means users see ads that are closer to their interests. Acxiom, for instance, claimed that data mining “enriches and improves lives,” citing a study that tracked Haitian earthquake refugees’ movement via their social media activity, information that was then provided to disaster-relief groups.

And almost all stressed that they were abiding by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a 1998 law that criminalizes the act of compiling personal information of kids under 13. But again, they followed simply the letter of the law: Experian said it scans census information for the presence of 13-17-year-olds to market to their parents.

The eight members of Congress on it resoundingly denounced the companies’ responses.

They’re “only a glimpse of the practices of an industry that has operated in the shadows for years,” the Caucus said in a statement, noting that “many questions about how these data brokers operate have been left unanswered.”

The Caucus wasn’t clear about its next move, but promised to “push for whatever steps are necessary to make sure Americans know how this industry operates and are granted control over their own information.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons