US consumers bunged into Big Data buckets without their knowledge and with no redress

Dec 20, 2013

It's that "most wonderful time of the year" when Europeans, North Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and many many others around the world give their credit cards a prolonged seasonal flexing - buying today and paying tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that.

And it's all welcome grist to the mill for the credit agency companies that collect, maintain and manipulate ever more data about consumers and use the latest and most sophisticated data mining techniques to analyse, categorise and profile people and then advertise and market directly to them to persuade them to spend even more.

A timely and thought-provoking new report has just been published in the US by the Senate Commerce Committee. It details how the credit agencies, brokerages and marketing companies work to catalogue and pigeonhole consumers in often subjective, arbitrary, condescending and cynical ways that can have a profound effect upon their lifestyles and financial power.

The Senate Commerce Committee spent a year investigating how credit agencies collect, sift and manipulate data they collect on the purchasing habits and history of individual Americans and how much information they maintain on them. It makes for sobering reading.

The report is the result of a study into the practices of data brokers and an investigation into the big credit agencies like Experian, Equifax and TransUnion as well as marketing organisations such as Acxiom, Epsilon and Datalogix.

All these companies are sat on huge and growing mountains of Big Data. For example, Acxiom admits that it has "insight" of 700 million consumers around the world and "over 3,000 propensities for nearly every US consumer." Meanwhile Datalogix confirms that its burgeoning database covers "almost every US household."

How sinister does the word "propensities" sound in this context? You can just imagine the computer throwing-up information stating that Mr. X has a propensity for hard liquor and strip clubs while Ms. Y has a predilection for expensive handbags and male escort services. This sort of stuff should be private, but it's not. And we are giving ourselves away even as we use our cards and make our purchases - and those records are never, ever, deleted.

OK so we knew that already but what is new here are details of the ways in which individuals are specifically categorised as "American Royalty" or "Established Elite" and so on down the cascades to "Ethnic Second-City Strugglers" and "Rural and Barely Making It."

The Senate Committee asked Experian to explain the rationale and calculation behind the decision to place people into these catch-all buckets. It turns out Experian actually has one category it calls "Hard Times" (how very Dickensian) and it transpires that those lumped into that category are "older, down-scale and ethnically-diverse singles typically concentrated in inner-city apartments."

Experian continues, "This is the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, the poorest lifestyle segment in the nation. Hard Times are older singles in poor city neighbourhoods. Nearly three-quarters of the adults are between the ages of 50 and 75; this is an underclass of the working poor and destitute seniors without family support ... One-quarter of the households have at least one resident who is retired.”

Well that's them simultaneously stiffed and stuffed then isn't it? And there's no appeal against this subjective categorisation; indeed most people will never know that Experian and its ilk have consigned them to a particular circle of hell - or consumer heaven.

At the other end of the scale the categories including "Power Couples" and "American Royalty" are equally insulting. The "American Royalty" segment is described by Experian as ""wealthy influential and successful couples and families living in prestigious suburbs." And here was me thinking that the US fought the Revolutionary War against Britain to do away with the notion of 'royalty' lording it over the people?

Commenting on the revelations, the Democrat Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said,

"I am disturbed by the evidence showing that that data brokers segment Americans into categories based on their incomes. I want to know how and why data brokers are putting Americans consumers into categories like these."

Well, isn't it obvious? It is to maximise revenues and profits from the "good" categories and to either exploit or minimise exposure to those in the "bad" segments. Normal business practice in other words - but the arrogant definitions stick in the craw.

As the American Civil Liberties Union writes in a statement, "It's the integration of information, and using the fact that they know so much more about us than we know about their practices, to take advantage of consumers who may be vulnerable. Consumers' information is being gathered without their consent or knowledge".

It has also emerged that data brokers "track, categorise and sell personal health information for marketing use." While data groupings include "rape victims and HIV-positive people as well as those with depression and dementia - and womens’ visits to their gynecologist".

Consumers in the Europen Union do have some protection against this kind of intrusive and insensitive gathering of highly personal data but, in the US, companies are legally allowed to withhold from individuals what data is collected about them, how they are categorised and who buys the information.

The Senate report says, "Current federal law does not fully address the use of new technologies, despite the fact that social media, web tracking, and mobile devices allow for faster, cheaper and more detailed data collection and sharing among resellers and private-sector entities".

In other words, and as is usually the case, legislation lags far behind technology and is always likely to be an also-ran, struggling to catch up but forever down the field - allowing some companies to make hay.

Here's the so-called "Sample List' of the categories commonly used in the US to "target products". If you are in America you will have been scooped into one of these - or something very, very similar. Why not play a jolly Yuletide game of "Which Bucket Am I In?" And then ask, "Who the hell came up with this and what bucket can I stick him into?" In the case of the Duke of Clarence it was a butt of Malmsey wine.

Sample List

Burdened by Debt: Singles

Mid-Life Strugglers: Families

Resilient Renters

Very Spartan [for Greeks only perhaps?]

X-Tra Needy

Zero Mobility [quadra- and tetraplegics?]

Hard Times

Enduring Hardships

Humble Beginnings [Abe Lincoln's in this one]

Struggling Elders: Singles

Retiring on Empty: Singles [those who don't eat supper before going to bed?]

Tough Start: Young Single Parents

Living on Loans: Young, Urban Single Parents

Credit Crunched: City Families

Meagre Metro Means [can't afford the subway fare?]

Relying on Aid: Retired Singles

Rough Retirement: Small Town and Rural Seniors

Financially Challenged

Credit reliant

Rocky Road [to Dublin?]

Very Elderly

Rolling the Dice

Fragile Families

Small Town: Shallow Pockets

Ethnic Second City Struggers [could be Birmingham, Alabama or Birmingham, England?]

Rural and Barely Making It

Overpaid but Unaccountable, Anonymous Scrotes Working in Credit Agencies and Brokerages

Alright, so I made the last one up.

Email Newsletters

Sign up to receive TelecomTV's top news and videos, plus exclusive subscriber-only content direct to your inbox.