The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently asked Congress to do more to protect consumers against the unchecked collection and sharing of their digital data by providing them with tools to view, suppress, and change their information. The agency also asked Congress to rein in data brokers, the companies that analyze and sell consumer information for marketing purposes.
The FTC took aim at the data brokerage industry in its recent report to Congress, “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.” There is a fundamental lack of transparency about data brokers’ practices, the agency noted in the exhaustive report. Unbeknownst to most consumers, data brokers work behind the scene to gather information about them from commercial, government, and other publicly available sources online and offline. The same technology used to target relevant online ads can also create a composite of the consumer that can infer race, gender, and sexual orientation, among other things, although it could be flawed.
An earlier report released by the White House raised similar flags regarding the immense aggregation of personal information. According to an article in The New York Times, the report’s most significant findings focused on “the recognition that d can be used in subtle ways to create forms of discrimination – and to make judgments, sometimes in error, about who is likely to show up at work, pay their mortgage on time, or require expensive medical treatment.”
Storing this type of data indefinitely, the FTC pointed out, also poses a security risk.
In response to the White House report, Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, whose members include Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter, said the report was a “useful examination” of big data technology. He encouraged the administration to “turn its attention to the most pressing privacy priorities facing American consumers,” such as updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
The White House report further recommended extending Americans’ privacy rights to foreigners, acknowledging that there are no boundaries when it comes to the data collected online.