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The Privacy Problems of ‘Big Data’

Jackie here. What can be done about data brokers? We’ve talked about the potential problems and benefits of data collection here on the blog many times, but the one thing that stands out is the limited amount of power consumers have to control their information. Even with stringent privacy practices, if you use the internet, pay with a credit card, receive supermarket loyalty points, look up health information online, etc., your data is out there.

If you feel like you’re fighting a losing battle for privacy, you’re not alone. So far, however, there isn’t a clear solution to the big data problem. I recently read an opinion piece from the NY Times that suggests that legislation is the key to resolving some of the issues with “Big Data”. What do you think? Is increased legislation necessary to protect our privacy in an online age?

A List for Everything

When it comes to data marketing there is a list for almost everything imaginable. There are lists of those with various diseases (like diabetes, depression, AIDS, etc.), lists of impulse buyers, lists of home owners, and certainly many more. These lists are filled with names of consumers and sold to interested parties including advertising agencies, potential employers, banks and creditors, insurance companies, and others. There is no way to know which lists you’re on and no way to edit the information on these lists, even if things are incorrect.

While it might not seem like a big deal if your name appears on a list of impulse buyers, should you make a list of those with a terminal illness, people with STDs, or methamphetamine dealers (yes, these are all real lists), you might find yourself struggling to get jobs, find credit, or obtain new insurance policies. Consumers cannot be certain how this data is used, so being able to control what lists.

What Needs to Happen?

There are a few things you can do now, but currently the situation needs help. Right now you can opt out of interest based advertising, block cookies, and share cautiously online, but each of these requires a lot of extra effort. I’ve personally tried to opt out from online advertising several times, but find that new marketers pop up almost daily and get frustrated that every time I clear my cookies, my opt out choices disappear to. You can block cookies, but then are unable to opt-out since the current system uses cookies.

The author of the NY Times articles suggests that data marketers be required to register with the FTC and that a requirement for notification to consumers as their names appear on sensitive lists should be required.

What steps would you like to see taken to protect consumer information?

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