June 12, 2013 8:11 pm

Consumers seek a way to draw the veil back over their lives

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At a recent talk in London, Google’s Eric Schmidt gave some advice to those worried about the increasingly online and digital nature of our lives. “There is an off button. Learn how to use it,” he said.

But, for individuals concerned about the detailed profiles that data brokers are building about them, there is no off button.

For years, that industry has operated behind the scenes of the corporate world, releasing few details about the exact information it collects and how those details are used.

Requests to see a data broker’s dossier of marketing information about oneself are often rejected.

It is impossible to avoid the tracking completely, but one can choose not to be targeted by ads based on the profile information.

Privacy advocates have long called for important data brokers such as Acxiom, Experian and Datalogix to allow individuals to see what information is collected about them, correct those details and delete their profiles.

Politicians and regulators also call for more transparency, worrying that current procedures are not enough.

“Consumers are often unaware of the existence of data brokers as well as the purposes for which they collect and use consumers’ data,” the US Federal Trade Commission said in December, when it launched an investigation of the business.

“This lack of transparency also means that even when data brokers offer consumers the ability to access their data, or provide other tools, many consumers do not know how to exercise this right.”

To opt out of digital ad targeting, a person can visit the industry website aboutads.info, or visit the websites of individual tracking companies, such as Acxiom.com. To opt out of receiving direct mailings, consumers can make the request at the industry website dmachoice.org.

But Tiffany Green, an attorney in the division of privacy and identity protection at the FTC, says that even those who knew about digital tracking “would have to go through hundreds of thousands of companies to opt out and gain access, and make corrections to their data”.

Deleting the tracking cookies on a person’s computer or mobile device also deters digital profiling and targeting.

While traditional data companies have hesitated to provide consumers with access to their own dossiers, some digital advertising technology companies are leading the way.

BlueKai, for instance, operates an exchange that facilitates selling of digital data about consumers. People can visit a registry on BlueKai’s website to see details collected about them by other data companies. A visitor can review and correct information about his or her location, professional interests, hobbies and probable purchases, among other categories.

Acxiom says it is in the middle of building a similar service, which for the first time would let consumers see the information it knows about them. Acxiom expects that service to be available as early as this summer.

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