FTC Asked to Review Stealth Collection of Consumer Data

Calling for an investigation into companies conducting stealth collection of consumer data, the Center for Digital Democracy, US PIRG and World Privacy Forum have filed a complaint with the FTC today.

At issue are the recent developments in online profiling and behavioral targeting that now enable massive commercial aggregation of consumer’s information without your knowledge or consent, and the threat these actions represent to your privacy.

This data aggregation merges each individual’s online browsing and purchasing behavior plus any comments or actions you’ve taken on social networking or other sites (for Gmail users, this includes analysis of your email content), and combines this with your credit information, your age, location, income, whether you own a home, any criminal records, voting records, etc.

In short, advanced data collection companies aggregate all available online (including mobile devices) and offline information about you as an individual, and then sell it to whomever is bidding.

The sale of your specific information is often done in real time, where advertisers bid for the ability to direct a message at an individual Web surfer at the very moment they are doing something online that the advertiser is interested in. These trades take a breathtakingly short 50 milliseconds to complete.

These business practices affect virtually every individual – whether you’re an internet user or not

Some of the companies listed in the filing you’ll have heard of – and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Google is listed first in the filing. But most of the companies you don’t even know exist: PubMatic, TARGUSinfo, MediaMath, eXelate, Rubicon Project, AppNexus, Rocket Fuel, Rapleaf, and more.

Consider the numbers

The filing includes the following statistics. Yahoo’s Right Media Exchange processes 9 Billion transactions daily. MediaMath serves more than 13 billion transactions daily. TARGUSinfo delivers more than 62 Billion transactions a year. PubMatic processes more than 100,000 data transactions per second. The Rubicon Project has information on ‘more than 500 million unique internet users”. BlueKai provides “actionable data” on over 200 million retail, travel, education and financial product shoppers – and they give buyers access to over 10,000+ combinations of intent, demographic, lifestyle, B2B data, and additional segments.”

That’s your information whizzing by

Extolling the virtues to businesses of Real-Time Bidding (RTB) for individual consumer’s access, the filing cites Pubmatic’s “Understanding Real-Time Bidding from the Publisher’s Perspective (Feb 2010). This material states that RTB “is the fastest growing segment of U.S. online advertising…With RTB, advertisers have the great level of transparency available on the individual user in real-time… Having greater transparency…provides great insights to advertisers, but it is the difference in how media [your information] is bought and sold with real-time bidding is the game changer…” RTB “can buy impressions [advertising space] to reach specific users or reject them as the [ad] campaign is in progress.” In another report PubMatic states that “RTB allows advertisers to reach the right user, in the right place, at the right time – and assign an individual value to a particular ad impression.” If you’re the ideal candidate, PubMatic earns more.

The filing also quotes the chief revenue officer at eXelate’s comments to ClickZ News, “Who a user is is becoming more important than where they are.” Then he highlighted the types of data that are particularly valuable to advertisers, such as information on household income, interests and purchase intent.

Excerpts from Instant Ads Set the Pace on the Web,” New York Times, 11 Mar. 2010, and included in the filing further highlight this point: “Now, companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft let advertisers buy ads in the milliseconds between the time someone enters a site’s web address and the moment the page appears. The technology, called real-time bidding, allows advertisers to examine site visitors one by one and bid to serve them ads almost instantly….’It’s a lot about being able to get to the right users, but it’s also about passing on certain instances where we don’t think you’re in the market, based on what you’ve been doing in the past hour..”

While advertisers are having a heyday with your information, your privacy is evaporating

It’s easy to see how all these advances in consumer information collection help businesses, and there is an argument to be made that these advances benefit consumers by providing more relevant advertising – but at what cost to privacy? And who gave permission?

You have no idea what information has been collected about you, where that information has been aggregated – or to whom it has been sold. (there’s a whole separate issue about whether the information aggregated about you is actually your information at all, or whether, for example, your good name has been associated with someone else’s criminal record). You don’t even know if you somehow gave ‘permission’ along the way as the so-called ‘privacy protections’ in place for consumers are frequently ineffective or misleading.

This filing is critically important to your privacy

As individuals, trying to fight large enterprises you’ve never heard of, to wrest control of information about you that don’t even know they have, is virtually impossible. And, should you be successful at one point in time, there is no assurance that it will last.

This point was driven home to me when I demanded my phone number be removed from a large aggregator’s search result. After the hassle of figuring out what it would take to have it removed and then getting it deleted, I was informed that there was no assurance that the same information wouldn’t be supplied to them from another ‘data source’ and therefore be displayed in the future, so the onus was on me to check and repeat the process as needed.

So while the company agreed to remove the info, they would not honor my request to filter out the information should it be supplied to them the future. It took less than a week to again find my number in their search results.

It is only through concerted efforts, like this one that consumers have a chance of dictating their own privacy and safety boundaries. My hat is off to the Center for Digital Democracy, US PIRG and World Privacy Forum for their dedication to our collective rights.

I urge each of you to support this filing, and to urge the FTC to take clear, consumer friendly action.

Read the full filing here



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