Most of the companies only recently started honoring these requests in response to the California Consumer Privacy Act. Set to go into effect in 2020, the law will grant Californians the right to see what data a company holds on them. It follows a 2018 European privacy law, called General Data Protection Regulation, that lets Europeans gain access to and delete their online data. Some companies have decided to honor the laws’ transparency requirements even for those of us who are not lucky enough to live in Europe or the Golden State.“We expect these are the first of many laws,” said Jason Tan, the chief executive of Sift. The company, founded in 2011, started making files available to “all end users” this June, even where not legally required to do so — such as in New York, where I live. “We’re trying to be more privacy conscious. We want to be good citizens and stewards of the internet. That includes transparency.”
I was inspired to chase down my data files by a June report from the Consumer Education Foundation, which wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate secret surveillance scores “generated by a shadowy group of privacy-busting firms that operate in the dark recesses of the American marketplace.” The report named 11 firms that rate shoppers, potential renters and prospective employees. I pursued data from the firms most likely to have information on me.One of the co-authors of the report was Laura Antonini, the policy director at the Consumer Education Foundation. At my suggestion, she sought out her own data. She got a voluminous report from Sift, and like me, had several companies come up empty-handed despite their claims to have information on hundreds of millions of people. Retail Equation, the company that helps decide whether customers should be allowed to make a return, had nothing on me and one entry for Ms. Antonini: a return of three items worth $78 to Victoria’s Secret in 2009.
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“I don’t really care that these data analytics companies know I made a return to Victoria’s Secret in 2009, or that I had chicken kebabs delivered to my apartment, but how is this information being used against me when you generate scores for your clients?” Ms. Antonini said. “That is what consumers deserve to know. The lack of the information I received back is the most alarming part of this.”
In other words, most of these companies are just showing you the data they used to make decisions about you, not how they analyzed that data or what their decision was.
As of October, the company has permanently eliminated its “Partner Categories” feature, which had enabled advertisers targeting hyper-specific user demographics to do so by purchasing access, through Facebook, to consumer data gathered by third-party brokers like Acxiom, Datalogix, Epsilon, BlueKai, Oracle, and others.