Data privacy has become a galvanizing issue in the past year, as public awareness has surged about how much personal data is readily accessible by companies and governments. Amid this public firestorm, Acxiom, one of the largest so-called data brokers, launched a consumer-facing site called AbouttheData.com in early September.
Billed by the company as an experiment with increased transparency, the website offers individuals unprecedented access to some of the marketing-related data being collected about them by companies such as Acxiom. It also offers consumers the opportunity for consumers to correct certain data points, if they believe them to be inaccurate.
Here, Acxiom’s Chief Privacy Officer Jennifer Barrett Glasgow answers some questions about the new service and how it may impact the national dialogue about data privacy.
Data Informed: What are the origins of AbouttheData.com?
Jennifer Barrett Glasgow: We have offered access and corrections to the data we have in our list systems for over 10 years. Ever since we put that in, we’ve been thinking about when was the right time to possibly extend that capability to the marketing data. Actively, for the last couple years, we have been seriously saying, what would it take to do that? What would it look like? Do we want to make it really hands-off or do we want it to require manual intervention? A self-serve portal can be too tedious a task. We needed to make it interactive so that people can look at the data right away, and correct it if they can.
A couple things came about in the last two years. We put more and more of our data products into interactive products that we bring to market. And the whole world is moving toward more transparency, about how businesses operate. It’s pushed by consumers, legislators and regulators. Obviously, there’s been a lot of interest in the data broker community, and so we finally decided, let’s just go ahead and do it. We’re in a much better position, with the data already being online. And so we started down this path of trying to figure out what we would offer.
We have historically been a business-to-business company, so we had to learn how to talk to consumers. That was maybe one of the more challenging things we encountered: How do we get the industry’s buzzwords and jargon out of our speech and interact in a way that the consumer would understand?
What have you learned since launching the website?
Barrett Glasgow: We’re still learning about how to talk to consumers because we still use jargon that is not common in the general population’s lexicon. We learned that while we make assumptions about how data is important in the marketing world, it may not be obvious why it’s important and how it’s used. For instance, in the first couple of days, we realized the users weren’t paying attention to the directions, and they were putting their date of birth in the wrong format. So we broke it out into month, day and year. Little things like that.
We’re learning about some things that consumers are doing. They’re changing a lot of data. We’d hoped they would. Some of the fields they’re changing are a little bit of a surprise too. The most popular field to change is political affiliation. I don’t know if that’s due to what’s going on in Washington or not.
There’s been a lot of political and consumer criticism of data brokers. Do you expect the consumer-facing website to help diffuse some of that heat?
Barrett Glasgow: One of the things that we hoped would be very enlightening is that there are lots of stories about what data brokers collect about you. We’re really trying to set the record straight and explain the business we’re in and what we do. I think that most consumers, at least a lot of the feedback we’re getting from people who have used it, say, “Oh, that’s not very scary.” What we don’t know always scares us.
It’s also very gratifying that people have really engaged. People are changing the data, they’re getting engaged with it. They’re not saying, I’m going to opt out. That was one of our hopes, that when people saw it, they’d say, “Oh, I can see this could help someone market to me or send me offers that I’m interested in.”
How important is consumer awareness to Acxiom’s game plan going forward?
Barrett Glasgow: We want to demystify our business for consumers. We want the Acxiom brand to be a little more recognized. I don’t know that we’re going to become a major consumer-facing entity with lots of products. But we’ve talked about what kinds of offerings we might have out there for consumers. In a world of big data and big data brokers, data is becoming more important in everything that we do. We think it’s a good thing that consumers understand data a little bit better. They’ll never understand it like the statisticians do, but we feel like it’s the [right] thing that they understand it a little better.
Are there any risks for Acxiom in doing this?
Barrett Glasgow: There were a couple of things. But what we hoped would happen actually happened. One of the risks that we had is that consumers would just opt out. It would drive awareness up and it would drive opt-outs. And that did not happen. People got engaged with the data, and when it wasn’t quite right or wasn’t right at all, they fixed it or they said, delete that.
Another risk that we’re still studying, and I don’t know that we have enough of a track record yet with the data, is if they left it in, would they compromise it in some way? Our CEO made a comment early on that if in six months we have 20 percent of the 40-year-olds disappear and suddenly the 30-year-old population increases by 20 percent, is that something we should allow people to do if we have high confidence that they’re really 40? So we’re having some discussions about whether the consumer should be able to change their age, if that’s how they really prefer to be marketed to? Should a marketer care? Would a marketer be glad to know they think of themselves as 10 years younger, and so send me products accordingly?
What does the future hold for AbouttheData.com?
Barrett Glasgow: I don’t know that we can really say where Aboutthedata.com will be in the next couple years. There are a couple things I will say about the general trend in terms of privacy and data that are certainly going to direct themselves in our direction. The consumer does need to get more involved with the data. The key is going to be, we can’t turn them into people who are spending all their time managing their data. Because they will really never ultimately understand all the different ways we use their data. So I think as a society we have to say, where are the things that are good for everyone? It’s the concept of context. In what context is this data appropriate to use? In what context should consumers have some say in it? And what kind of say should they have?
When we launched the offering over a decade ago to access the data in our risk products, you can see it and you can correct it, but you can’t opt out. Because you don’t want the bad guys opting out from the very systems that are intended to catch them for identity verification purposes and fraud purposes. But for the marketing data, we say there should be a choice to opt out. So that’s a context-specific example. I think as a community, we’re going have to figure out where the ditches are down those different roads. I think we’re getting there, but it’s like a lot of other norms in the digital world today. We’re still creating them and understanding them and debating them, what they ought to be. But we’ll begin to settle in on some as we go down this path.
Where the norm says the consumer needs to be engaged, I think they will be. But I don’t think they’ll be engaged in managing it all. Personally, I want something that is safe and just allowed to go do it. And then I want other things where maybe I have a say. By giving the consumer a carte blanche to have a say in the data we have about them, we’re learning where some of the norms may need to settle out.
Do you think that the way companies handle personal data will become a differentiator in the marketplace?
Barrett Glasgow: I think we have to be careful. We’ve been saying that privacy should be a differentiator in the marketplace for a number of years now. And obviously, I think security comes into play there. It’s not just how you use the data. And obviously more sensitive data requires more protection. Be that as it may, I think we also have to have a practical conversation about how busy we all are, and how we really want the conveniences and the advantages that data brings without going through a lot of trouble. Just figure it out and make it happen. If industry has developed some norms that the consumer can understand, that are simple, that are basic, that it will be embraced. If we try to make it too complicated for them, then they’re just going to say it’s not worth it. That’s the challenge we’ve got. We know you don’t give them 40 switches, but we know one is too few. The on-off switch is too few. But where is the right number in between?
Do you think Acxiom’s approach to data privacy is influencing your competitors?
Barrett Glasgow: I think it’s too soon to see how competitors in the long haul will react. I will say that we have an advantage over most competitors. You have to be able to authenticate the consumer, which something that’s kind of overlooked. Because the consumer didn’t come to us and give us this data. And we’ve got to know that when you’re looking at data, you’re looking at data about you and not somebody with a similar name or that used to live at your address. So we use our own authentication product. Companies that don’t have that would have to go out and pay another company that does offer those services to authenticate the consumer before they let them see whatever data they have. It’s a very real barrier and cost consideration in any data broker launching something like this. So we’ll see.
Alec Foege, a contributing editor at Data Informed, is a writer and independent research professional based in Connecticut, and author of the book The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great. He can be reached at email@example.com.