A friend alerted me about this news story in the U.K. Telegraph newspaper:
"Somewhere in Little Rock, Arkansas, there is a database holding 750 billion pieces of information on you, me and everyone we know. John Meyer is the man in charge of these sensitive details in one of the world's largest consumer information databases: approximately 1,500 facts about half a billion people worldwide."
I'll bet you hadn't heard of Acxiom before. Neither had I. The author doubted the accuracy and scope of Axiom's consumer data. Meyer's reply:
"Oh we do have you on our database. I guarantee you... Your name address, phone number. You have a cat. You're right handed. That sort of thing."
Meyer was correct about the author's personal data. How Acxiom collects information worldwide about consumers' personal habits and product purchases:
"All information on the database has been given away freely by the consumer through anything from registering for services online, to questionnaires or buying magazine subscriptions, Mr Meyer claims."
I wonder how precise that statement is. Meyer's explanation sounds intentionally vague, since a company will built its brand and revenues on processes that are more solid, definable, and defensible against competitors. After all, the corporation's sales were about $1.0 billion during the last 12 months.
This news story in The Cabin starts to shed some light on things. After a Conway, Arkansas Rotary Club member asked Meyer how Acxiom gets its data, Meyer replied:
" 'Sorry, that's a trade secret.' But then Meyer relented and said that bit of information is one of 750 billion discrete bits of information collected by Acxiom... The vehicle identification number on [a consumer's] car is one of those bits, Meyer explained, and it shows the color of his car is blue, and that gives Acxiom a clue that Roger probably has an affinity for blue cars... Acxiom collects information from 375 million consumers for 12,000 marketing campaigns and 150,000 background checks a month and the handling of 17 percent of the mail in the U.S... Acxiom's original method of marketing was direct mail, Meyer said, but has now expanded to Global Interactive Marketing Services in 60 countries, including, among other forward-reaching methods, e-mail, product placement in TV and movies and text messaging."
Meyer's statement is interesting about the company's approach with consumers' preferences. I wonder how much of the company's "data" is built on probabilities and not actual preferences. Consider this: our family car is blue. My wife and I both drive it. Does that mean I prefer blue, my wife prefers blue, or both? Or may we are just too lazy to change the color of the used car we bought.
More importantly, this tells me that Acxiom has some definite processes it uses that it doesn't want to disclose. It suggests that companies engage with Acxiom to target and reach specific consumer audiences. And along the way, Acxiom probably adds to its database collection. But I shouldn't have to guess. Consumers deserve a clearer explanation since Acxiom is making money from our personal data.
This also tells me that more companies besides Acxiom may have the VIN data about my car and yours. I wonder how many. I surely didn't give my vehicle VIN number to any companies. I wonder if Acxiom got it from the states vehicle registries or from the manufacturers.
After a little online research, I found this class-action lawsuit against Acxiom which sheds more light on things:
"Taylor et al v. Acxiom Corporation et al : Plaintiffs bring a class action against defendants for unlawfully purchasing Texas' entire database of names, addresses and other personal information from the Texas Department of Public Safety."
Some familiar companies are part of the list of defendants: Choicepoint and Lexis-Nexis. Geez. If feels like whenever I turn over a rock, there isn't a snake underneath but a geyser. This lawsuit started in 2007, included references to the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), and worked its way through various dismissal motions by the defendants. Two points I use this to emphasize. First, the lawsuit uncovered relationships between companies and states regarding the sharing of consumers personal data. Second, your vehicle VIN is not considered personal data.
Do you consider your vehicle VIN personal data? I do. And I'll bet you do, too. The DPPA doesn't. That doesn't seem right to me. I hope that it annoys you, too.
"... the company is entirely old fashioned when it comes to letting consumers opt out of its huge database of personal information. To do so, they must visit the firm's Web site and fill out a Web form. Acxiom will then mail a paper “opt-out form,” which consumers must then fill out and mail back."
What?! Experts view this convoluted opt-out process as simply an attempt by the company to discourage consumers from opting out. This is one reason why I prefer opt-in. If the company's service is so great, consumers will opt-in. If companies have to force users to use their service with an opt-out mechanism, then maybe the service isn't as great as the companies claim:
"It's ridiculous to think that in this era these companies require a letter for this," says Pam Dixon, director of the World Privacy Forum, which sent a formal letter of complaint (PDF) to the Federal Trade Commission..."
To me, this is the insidious side of data collection when companies use an opt-out approach. If consumers don't even know that the company is collecting data about them, how can they possibly opt out? And it forces consumers to become an expert of the company's products and services, so they can effectively opt out of the correct services. In my opinion, this is the slimy side of business.
Regardless, the company describes itself this way in its Web site:
"Acxiom works with many of the world’s leading companies, including: 12 of the top 15 credit card issuers, 12 of the top 15 retail banking companies, 9 of the top 10 telecom/media companies, 7 of the top 10 retailers, 9 of the top 10 automotive manufacturers, 6 of the top 8 brokerage firms, 3 of the top 5 pharmaceutical manufacturers, 2 of the top 5 life/health insurance providers, 8 of the top 10 property and casualty insurers..."
You get the idea. When a company collects this much personal data about consumers and makes money from it, it deserves scrutiny. And consumers deserve transparent communication about who has their data and why.
My concerns center around data collection and data security, especially with telecommunications. I checked a couple data bases and so far, Acxiom hasn't had (or reported) a data breach. I hope to explore more in future blog posts.
What are your thoughts and opinions about Acxiom? About the extent companies collect consumers' personal data?