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Data Marketing Critics Check Out What's Written About Them


Companies that collect and sell information about you are usually pretty secretive about what they have on you. But one of the biggest data brokers is now letting consumers have a peek.

Yesterday, the Acxiom Corp. set up a website where people can look themselves up. It's called AboutTheData.com. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, some of the first people to try it were the data industry's critics.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Ashkan Soltani is privacy researcher. He says so far, he's just been poking at the website. He doesn't like the fact that logging in all the way requires personal information, like his date of birth.

ASHKAN SOLTANI: After that, it's pretty much along the lines of, you know, helping them verify your information.

KASTE: But if you don't log in, you give up the chance to correct their mistakes. And they do make mistakes. Stanford graduate student Jonathan Mayer has been a prominent voice for limits on big data, and he was quick to log in to see what Acxiom had to say about him.

JONATHAN MAYER: If I read the page correctly, Acxiom believes I have three children, own my sister's since-sold car, made just 14 purchases in the past two years; and I'm Christian. and I'm into motorcycling.

KASTE: None of which is true. But Mayer doesn't take comfort in the inaccuracies. He says Acxiom shows you the educated guesses that it's making about you - guesses that are sometimes wrong. But he says what the site is not showing you is the wealth of hard data that those guesses are based on. Mayer calls the website privacy theater. He says it's meant to improve the company's image, and deflect possible government regulation.

Acxiom didn't return calls from NPR. But CEO Scott Howe told The New York Times that the company does favor heightened industry regulation, but that it wants to keep, quote, "a voice in the process."

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.