For a firm like Acxiom, the old dictum "Knowledge is Power" certainly holds true. The data mining giant has built a (little known) information empire compiling information -- both publicly available and personally divulged through surveys and warranty cards -- on millions of Americans' addresses, contact information, shopping habits and more. The company builds consumer profiles to enable directed advertising. Knowing about you gives Acxiom the power to make billions.
However, when it comes to the surveilled subject, it's not so clear that knowledge equals power. More precisely: Does knowing what data giants like Acxiom know about us necessarily give us any more power? As Forbes noted, for the first time ever, Axciom, "the big daddy of all data brokers is nearly ready to show consumers their intimate personal dossiers, a move aimed at staving off public fears of Big Brother and government regulation."
The corporation is putting the motions in place to enable consumers to gain access to the consumer profiles gathered on them. Certainly, it's a push on Axciom's part towards greater transparency. But what content does this transparency really carry -- how much is the surveilled subject really empowered by knowing how and how much their behavior is tracked; the tracking, after all, is not about to stop.
I posed a similar question, when, in the light of the first flush of NSA dragnet revelations, Google wrote a public letter to the Justice Department asking to be able to be more transparent about the government requests for user data that the Internet leviathan works with. As I wrote, "With an ill-defined and ill-thought moralism at its foundation, the [Google] has been able to champion transparency and user privacy while at the same time marching in goose step with government and other industry players effectively establishing a totalized surveillance state."
But, for the most part, the behaviors that companies like Google and especially Acxiom track (for profit) are not about to change soon -- Google remains a monopoly force online (aside from a small uptick in use of un-trackable search engines in light of NSA revelations), while buying habits, addresses, phone contracts and more all surveilled and noted in vast data hoards by Axciom are not about to change. We, the surveilled subjects, are not necessarily empowered by knowing that we are tracked.
The important step -- one that certainly no giant data corporation will take -- is to spread means by which individuals can push back against, or avoid, increasingly totalized surveillance. Such efforts are not in Acxiom's interest. Indeed, this new push for greater transparency is no more than a barely veiled attempt to protect itself from regulation changes that may emerge in response to outrage over opaque surveillance dragnets. As Forbes noted: "Staving off regulation that could hurt its business is a key reason for embracing more openness. Of recent, it has faced questions from Congressional committees, and in December the Federal Trade Commission asked Acxiom and other data brokers including Corelogic, Datalogix and Intelius to provide details on how they use and gather data."
Tim Suther, Acxiom’s outgoing chief strategy and marketing officer, made clear the impetus behind opening access to consumer profile. And, surprise surprise, it has little to do with empowering the millions of individuals profiled and everything to do with the firm's business model. As Forbes reported:
Recent revelations about U.S. government surveillance of telephone calls and Internet traffic does not motivate the increased transparency on consumer records, Suther said: “It hasn’t impacted us at all. We have been thinking deeply about this for years. It isn’t like revelations about what the NSA is or isn’t doing were news to us. We knew that type of thing was happening whether it was called the Prism program or whatever.”
He cited an Acxiom report from last year as an earlier effort to address growing public privacy concerns about personal data. “Our mission is using information so that less of the world’s advertising is wasted. Why not try to make advertising pay off better for the marketer and be more meaningful for us as individuals,” Suther said. “We want to remind people that we don’t use it to determine employment or credit or to grant insurance.”
It is Acxiom's (and Google and Yahoo and, indeed, the government's) business to know about you and hoard data on you. There is nothing necessarily empowering about knowing what they know, unless we are prepared to push back.