WASHINGTON, D.C. — Chairman John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV is asking six data brokers for information on the compilation and sale of products that identify consumers based on their financial vulnerability or health status. Rockefeller brought attention to this industry practice during the Committee’s December 18, 2013, hearing titled, “What Information Do Data Brokers Have on Consumers, and How Do They Use It?”, and it was also highlighted in the majority staff report released at the hearing.
“I am concerned that data brokers are categorizing vulnerable consumers based on their economic and health challenges, and selling that information without consumer knowledge or consent,” Rockefeller said. “As I said during the hearing in December, I want to know which companies are buying these types of products to target their marketing to these groups of consumers.”
As discussed in the Committee majority staff report, data brokers compile detailed dossiers on consumers and sell products that group them based on judgments about their characteristics and predicted behavior. Privacy experts have raised serious concerns regarding the sale and dissemination of lists identifying a consumer’s fragile health or financial circumstances without the consumer’s knowledge or permission. They argue that segmenting and selling vulnerable consumers’ information can facilitate practices that cause real consumer harm, such as identifying who should wait longer for customer service, or targeting consumers more likely to buy financially risky products. During the hearing, Rockefeller also expressed his deep concerns about this practice.
Rockefeller sent letters today to six companies, including two – NextMark, Inc. and MEDbase200 – that were highlighted in testimony presented at the hearing as data brokers that produce lists of consumers exhibiting certain financial and health characteristics, such as “Empty Wallets,” “African American Pay Day Loan Responders,” and “Dementia Sufferers”. Four other letters were issued to Acxiom, Epsilon, Experian, and Lexis Nexis – companies that were part of Rockefeller’s initial inquiry into data brokers that sell products focused on consumers’ financial circumstances.
Rockefeller noted that the letters sought information “necessary for the Committee’s assessment of the potential consumer harms and benefits associated with data broker practices.” The Chairman pointed out that despite repeated requests, three of the largest data brokers – Acxiom, Experian, and Epsilon – have refused to provide information related to both purchasers and sources of their consumer data.
The letters were sent to:
- NextMark, Inc.
In October 2012, Rockefeller launched an investigation into the data broker industry to give consumers a better understanding of how their personal information may be collected, shared, and used. Rockefeller expanded the investigation in September 2013 when he sent letters to twelve popular personal finance, health, and family-focused websites. He requested their assistance in his ongoing investigation into the way data brokers collect and share a consumer's personal information. He further expanded the investigation in November 2013 following news reports alleging an Experian subsidiary sold data to an identity theft scheme, sending a letter to Experian asking for information related to the company’s vetting process along with lists of all customers and sources of consumer data. On December 18, 2013, the Committee held a hearing on this topic and released a majority staff report on the findings of the investigation to date.