April 20, 2014

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Axciom Opens (Some) Consumer Data; What Should You Do?

Yesterday Axciom, a large data broker, rolled out their data transparency site, aboutthedata.com. The sites lets you view some data that Axciom has about you, including demographic data, family status, financials, commercial history, and shopping preferences.

The site also lets you correct any errors in the data. It looks like you can modify the data arbitrarily, but the Terms of Use require that any modifications be truthful.

Several people have asked how they should approach the site. Should they look? Should they correct errors? My thoughts are below.

First, though, I should report on what I found when I inspected my own data. They had the basic demographic information about me pretty much correct. The information on my family’s finances was partially correct. The information on our shopping preferences was the least accurate, reflecting more or less what one would guess for the household of a person with my demographics and (purported) financial position. For example, you don’t have to be a genius to guess that a household containing a person my age buys “health and beauty” products from time to time.

One thing that jumped out was their belief that our household is interested in “orthopedic-related products”. They claim to know this because of “surveys”. It’s very unlikely that any member of my household has revealed an interest in this sort of medical-related product in response to any survey. I suspect that they learned this purported fact about my household by other means. Or maybe they got bogus survey data.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about whether it’s a good idea to correct errors in the data.

For starters, you don’t have any obligation to help Axciom get more accurate information about you. If you see an error and choose not to correct it, you are not in a state of sin.

That said, you might benefit from correcting certain types of errors, for example to remove incorrect information that is embarrassing or tends to lead to unwanted commercial offers. Certainly, any errors that tend to show you in a bad light should probably be corrected.

A more interesting question is what happens when people “correct” data in a way that deliberately introduces errors. The site’s Terms of Use prohibit this (“you further certify that any information you provide is accurate and complete”), so I will advise you against doing it. Don’t try this at home, people!

Still, not having been born yesterday, I recognize that some people will provide false “corrections.” If this is widespread, it could jeopardize the commercial value of Axciom’s database. After all, the value of the database is diminished if the contents are inaccurate.

Axciom could try to fight false corrections by using some kind of big-dataish algorithm to reject suspicious-looking corrections. Essentially, they would have some kind of model of which kinds of household data configurations are plausible, and they would reject corrections that are implausible according to their model. I can’t find anything in the site information that says that Axciom might ignore the corrections you submit—indeed, one of their main pitches for the site is that you can correct the data.

But actually, they don’t quite say that you can “correct” the data. What they say is that you can “edit” the data. Which makes one suspect that they retain the original data, and just add a notation that you edited the data to say something else, at a particular date and time. Close reading of the site suggests that this might be the case—in particular, explanatory text on the categories page says that “Changes will be kept for 24 months from date of change” which suggests that changes are stored separately from the original data such that the changes can somehow be rolled back or removed from your record later.

I’m curious what your experiences are with the site. How accurate is their data? What happens when you submit a correction/edit?

Comments

  1. Megan Squire says:

    I was going to use this as an interesting discussion today in my Data Mining class for my students. So I put my info in, all ready to be underwhelmed by what I found, and instead I got a “you have been flagged for manual entry” type of error message. The customer service procedure for “manual entry” involved sending them copies of my driver’s license, bank checks, and utility bills. Thanks, but no thanks. So I guess I’ll just have to wonder what they have on me.

    • Joe says:

      In my case, the data was hilariously inaccurate. Estimated income was off by a factor of 3. They show us as having three (!) mortgages for the entire value of our house when we have one mortgage for about 20% of our home value. The only thing that they seemed to get right is that I do use the internet and have purchased electronic/computer equipment and auto service (though they also have no record of the fact that I have a car). If I’m typical, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to pay for this info, given that census and public record data using my address would probably be more accurate.

  2. Michael Froomkin says:

    In the interests of science, I signed up, pushed the button, with this result:

    “We were unable to verify you
    “We are sorry, but we could not verify your identity using our authentication system.

    “If you would like to be manually authenticated by our Consumer Care Advocacy team, you will find instructions here. [https://www.aboutthedata.com/portal/show/manual-authentication-instructions]

    “Otherwise, please contact our Consumer Care Advocacy team for support: portalsupport@acxiom.com.

    I wonder if this because I opted-out of something at some time? I usually do.

    • Nathan T. says:

      Normally I wouldn’t give such a website the time of day, let alone them them know I am wondering what information they have on me by telling them who I am.

      I clicked the link from Ed because I respect Ed’s perspective and he didn’t shy away from attempting to obtain the information they had about him.

      As it is, when I clicked the button on their home page to see and edit the marketing data about me. I just got a message saying their website was down and I should try again in 24 hours or contact their tech support. I wonder if that is because of my stricter web browser settings; or other disabling methods I use to protect me while online; or if it really is some problem with them today.

      I did this before reading others’ posts; at least two of which claim they want more information about individuals some highly questionable information. No way I would I ever give some random website that kind of information. This sounds much more like a scam website than an actual and real relevant website. A website that knows very little but is more than happy to ask for a whole lot more even enough to steal identities not just marketing information.

      And here is where I have the beef with that “To protect your identity and access to Acxiom information pertaining to you, we request you assist the authentication process by providing us some additional information.”

      So they are more than happy to sell all this information to anyone with money; but they have to “protect” it from the user. If they are selling it to others that is not any sort of protection that I consider. Yep, honestly this looks to be more of a scam website than a valid one.

  3. Lori says:

    Someone should crowdsource, if nothing else, a guesstimate of the % of cases requiring manual “authentication.”

    Maybe the display of incompetence is to create an impression of harmlessness, or at least a lack of insight of the scary-smart variety.

    All we know for sure is that they’re not showing their entire hand. Whether we are is, as usual, unverifiable.

  4. Anon says:

    From Acxiom Website:

    >> Opting out of Acxiom’s online and/or offline marketing data will not prevent you from receiving marketing materials.
    >> Instead of receiving ads that are relevant to your interests, you will see more generic ads with no information to tailor
    >> content. For example, instead of getting a great offer on a hotel package in your favorite vacation spot, you might see
    >> an ad for the latest, greatest weight loss solution.

    This has SCAM written all over it. They don’t know about me, so entering all the data they request is ADDING MYSELF to their system. Worst of all, it seems you can not truly opt-out.

    Clause 13 of their ToS is also eye-opening.

  5. Michael says:

    When I tried to load the “edit” page their server threw a tantrum and came to a screeching halt over the fact that Javascript is disabled in my browser. I get that alot, because I never enable Javascript except to access my webmail. Javascript is a huge security hole.

    I read elsewhere that Axciom’s edit page requires one to enter a number of pieces of very personal data, including Social Security Account Number, in order to present that person’s data. Reasonable, at first glance, but a very bad idea.

  6. Linda Catoe says:

    In the interest of your request to share experiences, and as part of my Digital Ethics class, I went to the Acxiom site. First, the site’s look worries me. It’s way too slick and nondescript. On top of that, when I started to read the headings of why, where and how about why they need to collect my information anyway, It’s just the usual double talk about how my privacy is important to them, but they want me to have a better experience, so my they shared with anyone, and all that.

    When I clicked the magic button to take me to the wonderful world of my marketing data, the form info required to submit got just a little too personal for my tastes. While presumably, my ss# is probably info they already have, since they ask for it in their form, I don’t feel comfortable volunteering it except in payroll and official tax situations. So my gut instinct said “Run away, run away.” So I did.