Data Brokers Face Tough Hill Hearing

Rockefeller, others, clearly troubled by some industry practices

Data brokers got roughed up in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, though an Experian executive scored some points, too, in often contentious exchanges.

The thrust of the hearing was that while the collection, analysis and sharing of data has positive benefits, its downsides are many and the laws have not kept up with the explosion of digital info collection. One theme was that while there is a lot of focus on government data collection these days, that is under far stricter oversight than the data collection of data brokers.

Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said that if he did not get more information from three brokers—Acxiom, Experian, Epsilon—he had ways to compel them. Those were three of nine companies his committee collected information from for a report on the industry that was released in advance of the hearing.

Experian senior VP of government affairs and public policy Tony Hadley countered that the company provided some 3,000 pages of information and thought it had been cooperative.

Hadley also had an answer for Rockefeller's concerns about data brokers creating profiles of groups with names like "burned by debt singles," and "fragile families" (Rockefeller said such segmentation was "revolting"). Rockefeller had asked who the clients were that were buying those lists. Hadley said that they included government agencies—including in Rockefeller's home state—trying to reach those populations.

Rockefeller suggested he was selectively revealing clients—Hadley said he could not, on advice of his counsel, reveal the names of commercial clients. A clearly peeved Rockefeller suggested there were attorneys out there looking for a job.

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, painted a harsh picture of data brokers. She said that the industry has neither constraint nor shame. To illustrate, she talked about lists that had been compiled of rape sufferers, victims of domestic violence, police officers, home addresses of police officers, those with genetic illnesses, and more. "This is what is being sold and circulated today."

Hadley said that his company, via contract and monitoring, knows who is using its information, and does not allow it to be used for predatory purposes. He said his company brings significant value to consumers and the economy and that it shares data responsibly, in compliance with privacy laws and self-reg practices.

Sen. Ed Markey (D- Mass.) a vocal proponent of data privacy, was unconvinced. He said there was clearly a need for data broker legislation.

Rockefeller closed the hearing with a promise that the committee would continue to put a spotlight on the industry. He pointed to the slogan of one of the companies: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. He said the industry appears to be falling far short of that standard. He suggested the slogan actually is: We can, and indeed we will.