There is a giant corporation you've probably never heard of that's been collecting your personal information for years. And it has nothing to do with Prism. In fact, your call logs and social media history, information allegedly collected by Prism, is chump change compared to the data this corporation has stored about you – legally. This corporation is a data broker agency called Acxiom, and they are about to make their hoarded information accessible to you.
For over 40 years, Acxiom has served as a data broker agency that gathers consumer information from a variety of places to create a consumer profile of your buying habits. Acxiom then uses this information to help its clients, many of which are large corporations you interact with weekly, develop marketing programs that target your particular qualities and habits. And though Acxiom is not the only agency that collects such information, they are arguably the largest. According to the New York Times, Acxiom maintains a database on about 190 million people and 126 million households in the US, 500 million consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points recorded per person. It works for 47 of the Fortune 100 companies and also worked with the government after the September 11 terrorist attacks to provide information about 11 of the 19 hijackers. In March, Acxiom also began partnering with the social network we all love to hate, Facebook.
Hoarding Your Information
So what kind of things does Acxiom know about you? Well, some of the information is unsurprising, but may also be unwelcome: where you live and who you live with, your phone numbers, your financial situation, and records of the stores you shop at with your credit card. According to Forbes, Acxiom may also record your race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, education level, political affiliation, and occupation. The Cabin also suggests that Acxiom can identify households that are concerned with allergies, diabetes, or “senior needs,” for example, along with home loan information. Acxiom can also determine if you are interested in things like dieting and weight loss, gambling, or smoking.
How does Acxiom collect this information? Surprisingly, you are often the one who gives the information away. One source of Acxiom's data collection, The Forbes reports, are surveys and warranty cards you electively fill out. Another way Acxiom and its competitors collect your personal information is by tracking your card transactions. Are you ever asked for your zip code at checkout at, say, clothing stores? Counterintuitively, cashiers do not ask for your zipcode to process your transaction; rather, when cashiers ask for your zipcode they are actually recording the name listed on your credit card and waiting for you to hand over the last piece of identifying information their marketing agency needs to match your name with your consumer profile. Acxiom has many pieces of information on you, but it needs your zipcode to confirm that you, the person at the checkout, match the consumer profile they have on file.
How Acxiom Uses Your Information
After collecting extensive data about your personal status and buying habits, Acxiom compiles groups of consumers with similar traits and sells their information to marketers looking to target people with certain interests and needs. And with Facebook joining the mix of big-name clients like HSBC, Wells Fargo, E*Trade, Toyota, Macy's, FedEx, HP, and Sephora, it's not just big corporations that can send you targeted marketing. For example, Acxiom's partnership with Facebook will allow advertisers to create even more targeted ads for Facebook users; to give you an idea, Acxiom's data will enable marketers to target "soda drinkers" and people whose recent behavior indicates they will soon purchase a car.
It may help to familiarize yourself with a case of targeted marketing presented by the New York Times. Last year, the newspaper ran an article by Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, that detailed how and why Target could use the fact that a woman bought cocoa-butter, a purse large enough to serve as a diaper bag, and zinc and magnesium supplements, and a bright blue rug to identify her as pregnant and channel relevant marketing to her – the woman's family knew she was pregnant. In the case described by Duhigg, a father of a young woman angrily approach Target associates demanding why the corporation was sending his young daughter coupons for baby items. It turns out Target's metrics were able to identify his daughter as pregnant before he himself knew. Though Target is not a client of Acxiom's (in fact, they are a client of one of Acxiom's biggest competitors, Epsilon) this is a case that demonstrates the depth of the information marketers can infer about you with seemingly innocuous information.
Soon, You Too Can See What Marketers See
After 40 years of collecting consumer information, Acxiom wants to increase company transparency and give you access to the personal profile they have built arout you. The company aims to make the information available by the end of summer, though finding a secure and efficient way to do this is very difficult. Acxiom's systems are designed to provide clients information on groups of people, not individuals. Tim Suther, who is leaving as Acxiom’s chief strategy and marketing officer, told Forbes:
“It’s enormously difficult to do this. The reason for it is that all the systems that have been built up over the years have been built up with an eye for serving marketers, and marketers are not coming to Acxiom saying, gee, can you please give me this individual record about Adam Tanner. It’s not affordable, they are not interested. What they are interested in is doing that en mass so the systems have been built over the years to accomplish that.”
In the past, Acxiom has allowed consumers to request access to their personal profiles, but the process was difficult to pass through and costed $5. When the information does become available to individuals, hopefully this year, it will be accessible for free. This doesn't mean, however, that Acxiom will make it easy for the information to be obtained. They are developing a system that will prevent unauthorized access to individuals' profiles. "As you can imagine, being an information company, we, like Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and anybody else, we have all kinds of nefarious people and entities that are looking to try to break in," Suther said. "So the last thing that we want to do is to have a circumstance where information about people is inappropriately accessed.”
Though this news comes at a time when Prism has made concerns for privacy a hot button issue, Acxiom is developing transparency methods of its own accord. In fact, the company has been developing a method to make this information available to consumers for over a year. And this is bound to be a huge release of information. “In terms of information about people I would say that this is likely to be the most significant activity of any company managing information about people,” Suther said.
Do you think Acxiom and its competitors have gone too far in terms of the types of information they collect about consumers? Let us know in the comments.