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Data Brokers Are Combining Your Online and Real-World Actions Into a Super-Profile

Are we really comfortable with advertisers having that level of insight about our lives?
September 24, 2013, 5:21pm
Photo via flickr

Here's a scenario that could feasibly happen in the near future: You're thinking about taking a trip to India. You read a couple travel pieces about the ancient temples, and buy some new luggage just in case. That afternoon, you switch on the TV and boom, a commercial comes on for Virgin Air's special package to Mumbai. It's an ad for Virgin, because the advertiser knows your income level, and knows you flew them to Hawaii last year and then emailed a friend about how enjoyable the cocktails were.

Whether the ad is on target in that moment or not, isn't that a bit too creepy? Are we really comfortable with advertisers having that level of insight about our lives?


Creepy or not, sophisticated, data-fueled targeted advertising is the direction things are moving in, and they just started moving a whole lot faster. Yesterday, one of the biggest data brokers, Acxiom, announced a new feature that will let its data miners track your activity in real life, combine it with the digital footprint you leave behind and create a unified, comprehensive super-profile of who you are.

The company is already partnered with the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Facebook, and it's looking to television next, Financial Times reported. Meanwhile, other data brokers are racing to adopt the similar technology.

From their perspective, more relevant advertising leads to happier customers—and while there's some logic to that, there's also a tipping point. Too relevant feels more invasive than convenient. If you take the long view, the product looks like one small step for customer management tools, and one giant leap backward for society's right to privacy.

If you're starting to wonder exactly how much data companies know about you, you can find out. Last month, in a gesture of transparency—and with the hope of making users more comfortable with data collection so as to push that tipping point back a bit—Acxiom launched a website that will tell you what it knows. Enter your identity into and it’ll spit back a report of the information the company's got on you—though not all of it. The real dirt—things like drug addictions or terminal disease—is left out of the report.


The ACLU dug a bit deeper. It published a report detailing where Acxiom gets its information from, after a 2012 congressional inquiry found the company must reveal the details of its operation. Here’s a glimpse of the type of data pouring in:

  • Federal government lists, like the Social Security Administration and State Department Terrorist Exclusion list
  • Local government records like driver's licenses, vehicle records, bankruptcies, liens, and criminal convictions
  • Corporate data including contact information, financial "indicators" (so, type of credit card but not the number numbers), and health "interests" (including certain medical conditions like diabetes or arthritis) and a hundreds of interests, hobbies, and activities

With the launch of its new product, called Audience Operating System, Acxiom can now fuse that information with your "offline" traits—really personal things like political affiliation, religion, relationship status, and major life events. It can also loop in your real-world activities, like shopping habits in brick-and-mortar stores that track you with little cameras hidden in mannequins, or something like that.

The kicker is that now Acxiom, and soon a spate of other data miners, can crunch all that information and use it to glean unprecedented insights on consumers. The new technology makes it possible to ingest, unify, contextualize, and apply "virtually any type of data," according to the company. "Marketers are able to fully leverage all kinds of data—first-party, transactional, digital, social, mobile and other audience information," Acxiom CEO Scott Howe said in a news release.

To hear Acxiom tell it, it's a game-changing innovation; Howe used this metaphor to drive that home: "We never intended to build a better mousetrap. Instead, we chose to breed a world-class cat." What's troubling is, we, the public, are that trapped mouse.