FTC fights for data mining transparency post-NSA leak

"Reclaim Your Name" is a new initiative to give consumers access to records held by firms and agencies.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer on

A member of the Federal Trade Commission has proposed an industry-wide scheme to try and improve transparency in the field of data collection.

ftc data mining report reclaim your name

In the aftermath of leaked data concerning the surveillance of those abroad and American citizens by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden (now wanted on charges of espionage and believed to be at Moscow Airport), the FTC has begun scrutinizing the control and rights of consumers who have had information collected and stored about them.

One type of business at the forefront of such analysis is data brokerages. These companies are B2B-based and collect thousands of details on the general public, from shopping habits to vacation choices, and from ethnicity to estimated income. Collected through various means including online activity, data brokers then sell this information to corporations for marketing and future product research.

Although data brokerages sometimes include ways for consumers to opt-out of marketing databases, the U.S. agency wants more transparency to prevent sensitive details including present medical condition and financial status from leaving the control of the average consumer.

"We spew data every minute we walk the street, park our cars, or enter a building, the ubiquitous CCTV and security cameras blinking prettily in the background — every time we go online, use a mobile device, or hand a credit card to a merchant who is online or on mobile," FTC member Julie Brill noted. "We spend most of our days, and a good deal of our nights, surfing the web, tapping at apps, or powering on our smart phones, constantly adding to the already bursting veins from which data miners are pulling pure gold. That's where the "big" in "Big Data" comes from."

"Reclaim Your Name" is the initiative proposed by Brill to combat the issue. Under the terms of the scheme, Brill envisions an online portal where data brokerage firms would describe their data mining practices and consumer access policies, giving individuals the power to correct information where necessary. For example, inaccurately-mined data could harm a user's credit score, potential to secure a loan, employment or benefits.

In a speech at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington, Brill commented (.pdf):

"Over the past several months, I have discussed the proposal with a few leaders in the data broker business, and they have expressed some interest in pursuing ideas to achieve greater transparency. I sincerely hope the entire industry will come to the table to help consumers reclaim their names.

Data brokers that participate in Reclaim Your Name would agree to tailor their data handling and notice and choice tools to the sensitivity of the information at issue. As the data they handle or create becomes more sensitive — relating to health conditions, sexual orientation and financial condition — the data brokers would provide greater transparency and more robust notice and choice to consumers."

In addition to the proposed scheme, new legislation aims to reform both the Patriot and FISA Amendments Acts to give greater control and the tightening of oversight to governmental surveillance. While introducing the bill, Senator Patrick Leahy commented:

"The recent public revelations about two classified data collection programs have brought renewed attention to the government's broad surveillance authorities, and they underscore the need for close scrutiny by Congress."

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