“All day long, as we surf the Web, tap at apps or power up our smartphones ... we constantly add to the veins from which data miners pull pure gold,” Brill writes in The Washington Post. “It took the NSA revelations to make concrete what this exchange means: that firms, governments or individuals, without our knowledge or consent, can amass large amounts of private information about people to use for purposes we don’t expect or understand.”
She goes on to urge that people demand more information from data brokers about how they collect and use information. Brill writes that data brokers “learn about us from the cookies that hitch rides as users travel online and from the social media sites where we post everything from home addresses to pictures to magazine subscriptions and store purchases, as well as deeds on file in towns and counties.”
Data brokers then create “dossiers” that are used for retargeting, she says. “These dossiers are the reason that when I log in, I see an ad for suede boots but my son sees the release date for the latest 'Call of Duty' game.”
Brill also makes the claim that this kind of digital information could potentially determine not just the ads that people see but also “what offers we receive, what rates we pay, even what jobs we get.”
Not surprisingly, the Direct Marketing Association doesn't view the situation the same as Brill. On the contrary, DMA President and CEO Linda Woolley accuses Brill of conflating NSA surveillance with data-driven marketing.
“Third-party data use and sharing are essential for business success in today’s information economy,” Woolley says in an open letter to Brill. “Confusing issues of national security and responsible marketing paints an alarmist picture of supposed threats that the collection of marketing data poses to consumers.”
Rachel Thomas, vice president of government affairs for the DMA, adds that the group is in talks with Brill about the best way to improve consumers' understanding of data brokers' practices.
“These kinds of attacks do not help having that kind of productive conversation that we were involved in,” Thomas tells MediaPost. “The conflation of what the NSA does in terms of data practices, and what responsible marketers do, is irresponsible and inaccurate.”