It should rank as one of the more notable ironies of Big Government that while the Obama administration was lobbying Congress to protect its ability to collect personal data on individual Americans, President Obama's appointees to the Federal Trade Commission were pressing for stronger individual rights in controlling personal data collected by businesses.
These incongruous concerns about Big Data's ability to describe our behavior for the benefit of government snoops or of vendors of pet food highlight an issue of growing concern made possible by our voluminous personal records. Only they are not so personal anymore. These records are assiduously collected by firms known as data brokers. The FTC study of this industry found that their sale of data to vendors who want to sell us something carries risks as well as benefits for consumers.
"The extent of consumer profiling today means that data brokers often know as much - or even more - about us than our family and friends, including our online and in-store purchases, our political and religious affiliations, our income and socioeconomic status," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said on releasing the study.
Much of this information is willingly surrendered by individuals in exchange for a benefit, such as merchant discounts. But it can be used in harmful ways that can occur as side effects of the way the data is marketed. For example, some data brokers create marketing categories - cat lovers, motorcycle enthusiasts , etc - to attract clients who want to sell a particular line of products. But the FTC study noted that being included on a list of "biker enthusiasts," might cause insurance companies to assume an individual belonged in a high-risk group. Another example given was the possibility that data brokers might incorrectly assume that a given individual was a cancer patient, information that could be used to adversely affect that person's choices by vendors of various services.
The study also disclosed that the nine data brokerage firms it surveyed had different approaches to allowing individuals to correct errors or opt out of being collected, and that even where there were consumer-friendly policies the rights of correction and opting out were often not advertised.
The FTC called on Congress to create uniform rules regarding vendor access to data that might have adverse affects on consumers, consumer access to correct erroneous data, and the option to opt out of the data collection process altogether.
These are sensible recommendations. But Congress should not stop there. As potentially harmful as Big Data may be in commercial hands, it is far more dangerous to individual liberty when it is in government hands. Congress should tighten individual protection across the board, against Big Brother as well as against commercial Big Data.