Chartered to protect the henhouse, has the FTC turned into a fox?

I rarely get e-mail from the USA Today's Byron Acohido (who from time to time interviews me for my opinions on tech). But today, Acohido drew my attention to a story that he has co-authored with Jon Swartz under the headline FTC under fire as credit bureaus sell consumers' data.

I rarely get e-mail from the USA Today's Byron Acohido (who from time to time interviews me for my opinions on tech). But today, Acohido drew my attention to a story that he has co-authored with Jon Swartz under the headline FTC under fire as credit bureaus sell consumers' data.

The story draws attention to a complex Web of potentially conflicting interests involving Federal Trade Commission Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras, the law firm she used to work for, her husband who still works for it, how that law firm represents one of the big three credit reporting bureaus, and whether or not the FTC has morphed into an agent of the credit reporting bureaus' success from the consumer guardian that The People have entrusted it to be.

While the targets of this follow-the-money like inquest deny any impropriety, I can certainly understand the position of Robert Kuttner, author of The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity who, who in response to the USA Today inquiry, said:

Federal agencies that are supposed to be looking out for the consumer are really protecting the companies that do bad things the agencies were set up to prevent.

I felt precisely this way when virtually all the real teeth were removed out of the proposed legislation that eventually turned into the Can Spam Act. At one point, the legislation included language that prevented senders of bulk commercial e-mail from sending that e-mail to anybody but those individuals with which they had pre-existing relationships. In other words no blind prospecting or solicitations of your inbox.

But, arguing that benefits of unsolicited commercial e-mail (aka SPAM) outweighed the harms, lobbyists for the advertising and marketing industry fought tooth and nail to get that piece of the legislation removed and succeeded. It my mind, it was the ultimate selling-out whereby the government ended up representing the interests of big business rather than those of us in consumer-land who must endure those harms -- the worst of which today is that we have no idea whether our e-mails are reaching their intended recipients due to over-zealous spam filters on the other side. It's a mess.

According to the story:

In February, the National Association of Mortgage Brokers lambasted the FTC for giving the credit bureaus tacit approval to keep selling listings — called "trigger lists" — containing personal and financial data of prospective borrowers. Some unscrupulous lenders used trigger lists to contact people who recently filled out a loan application, and then pitched them subprime mortgages, higher-priced loans aimed at people with spotty credit histories but also marketed to borrowers with good credit.

I have been wondering for a while why, during the earlier part of this year, I received so many solicitations promising to beat my current mortgage rate and how these outfits that I never heard of managed to get a hold of the data that was intimate to me. Now I know. In other words, this is unquestionably one of those data stories involving the thorny question of who gets to control what happens to our personal data when. What this story demonstrates (that's not readily apparent to the naked eye) is the role that the government can play in protecting us, or perhaps giving the companies it's protecting us from the carte blanche they want to take advantage of us.

Earlier today, in response to a blog post I wrote earlier this year about the waning anonymity of cash (and how we are sometimes accosted for personal information at the point of sale the way Radio Shack used to do) and how I didn't mind terribly being asked for my zip code, one ZDNet reader wrote to me:

I used to think this information was used so that stores could figure out where there customers were coming from. But I've learned a lot about data aggregation companies like Axciom, Experian, etc. and I've learned exactly how the zip code is used.

The zip code is most useful to the retailer when you use a credit card. Because they have your name from the card, and also have your zip code now, you are generally findable on the massive consumer databases housed at Axiom, InfoUsa, etc. For instance, there is probably only one Keith Goodman in my zip code of 20001. The retailer now has a valuable piece of information that they can sell to a consumer database firm: your purchase history. I don't think they sell the information about the specifics of what you are purchasing, but the general category you purchased. For instance, if you buy something at a sporting goods store, the store probably reports to the database firms that you are "A purchaser of sporting goods." Don't be surprised if you start getting LL Bean, Cabellas, and similar catalogs since the consumer database firms are selling your purchase history to buyers.

Well. Now I have a little bit more insight into why trees are dying to fill my mailbox (snailmail box) with catalogs that I never requested. And they are. I have back pain to prove it (back pain from carrying a recycling bin full of heavy stock catalogs to the curb). All of these stories (including the recent FaceBook Beacon debacle) fall into the same category of APD Syndrome: Abuse of Personal Data. The question is, what will be that next evolutionary step that resets things so that we have the final word on such sensitive information.