A Peek into Big (and Erroneous) Data
Ever wonder what all those big data companies, who make tons of money selling information about you, actually know? With newly heightened concerns about data privacy, some companies will finally give you a peek. And it’s not too impressive. Maybe it’s good enough for mass marketing, but for those of us in research who sometimes purchase and append data to get deeper profiles of survey respondents, not so good.
Acxiom is one of the biggest, and they have just opened up a partial view of their data for consumers to review. I was curious to see what they knew about me, so I dutifully entered my name, address, birth date, e-mail address, and the last four digits of my social security number. (Hmmm, do you suppose that information was used only to query the database and ensure an accurate match? Or do you suppose it was funneled back into their database for permanent storage and targeted sales?)
I was shown a full profile including my voting status, party affiliation, marital status, home ownership, type of home, value of home, home mortgages, vehicle ownership, insurance ownership, credit card usage, online purchases, offline purchases, types of purchases, and hobbies and interests, plus more. Most of it was wrong. Though I did notice that my name, address, age, e-mail address, and last four digits of my SSN were correct (good job there, Acxiom).
Of course the poor quality of what I saw is not to say that all big data stinks. We know that cell phone data can track all phone activity and physical locations with enough accuracy that consumers are right to feel nervous. Moreover, it is likely that Acxiom has all kinds of detailed data about me that is accurate and that can be sold for more specific purposes. For sure, the company is smart—transparency means showing just enough of the most innocuous (and in this case, erroneous) data to allay concerns about privacy.
We recommend thinking twice, and then again, about the accuracy and reliability of big data like this if you ever use it for research purposes. We also recommend becoming familiar with at least those pieces of data these companies will let you see as a consumer. Here are a few websites to get you started: Acxiom, Google, Enliken, BlueKai, and Exelate.