March 10th, 2014 by Sarah Sluis

Like so many people, I grew up with fond memories of watching “60 Minutes” reporters chasing down guilty-looking people in parking lots and confronting them. The show has long been known for calling out bad actors, fraudsters, and other people who are cheating consumers. Last night, there were no people being chased down, but the news show turned its attention to companies’ use of consumer data. Did it find a new enemy in the advertising industry?

The target of its investigation was data brokers, with the show specifically calling out Axciom, Experian, and Epsilon, and Take5 Solutions among others. Of course, “60 Minutes” wasn’t there first. Slate and Mother Jones are among those that have looked into the kind of information available through data brokers. The Federal Trade Commission reported to a Senate committee in December with updates into its investigation into the practices of data brokers. But “60 Minutes” has a broad audience that includes older viewers and those that aren’t particularly tech savvy. For them, what was mentioned in the piece must have been a revelation. What will this piece mean for the industry?

As “60 Minutes” put it, consumer awareness of the kind of information data brokers have is currently quite low. The reporter watches stunned as they browse the Internet using the browser add-on Disconnect, which allows a user to see all the tags on a site that track a user’s clicks across the web. The report also pointed out a number of deceptive practices in the industry. Take5 Solutions gets its data from websites geared toward parenting or healthy living. It gathers up the information consumers submit, and then sells it. Information is available about medical conditions. How many of those consumers realize what they’re getting into? The reports from Slate and Mother Jones are worse, turning up information about Ok Cupid which shows no promise to keep the personal survey questions it asks confidential, and letting us know that companies sell information about where your license plate has been.

Then there’s this unfortunate comment from Epsilon CEO Bryan Kennedy, who admits that though he runs a company that sells information, he himself opts out of sharing. “It does surprise me [that consumers are rushing to the Internet to provide more information about themselves]. I don’t do it myself. I’m a consumer, like, like you are,” he told Steve Croft. “I think that consumers ought to understand that the Internet is an advertising medium.” If a fully informed person is careful not to share the very information his company collects, that’s not a good sign.

The industry has long talked about allowing consumers to opt-out, or, the gold standard, to only choose to opt in. Pieces like the “60 Minutes” on may show that the tide against self-regulation is turning. Transparency and opt-outs among data brokers will go a long way towards keeping consumer trust and showing consumers information is used to provide value, not invade their privacy.

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