“Reclaim Your Name”
By Katherine Walecka – Edited by Natalie Kim
On June 26, 2013 at her keynote address during the Computers Freedom & Privacy Conference, Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) Commissioner Julie Brill announced a new “Reclaim Your Name” initiative. Under the proposed program, data brokers — businesses that collect consumer data for sale to other businesses — would be made accountable to consumers. Consumers would be able to access personally identifiable information that data brokers hold online through a single user-friendly online portal and regain control over their data. This would fulfill the FTC’s goals of establishing greater transparency and accountability. The consumer could choose to correct inaccurate information as well as request deletion of or cessation of certain uses of their data. Such data is increasingly important for “substantive decisions – like credit, insurance, employment, and other benefits,” according to Brill.
Brill describes “Reclaim Your Name” as a counterpart to the existing “Do Not Track” option for the Internet. Under the “Do Not Track” option, consumers can request on certain websites that their activities not be monitored for marketing purposes. “Reclaim Your Name” also mirrors the much-older Do Not Call Registry, an outgrowth of the Do-Not-Call-Implementation Act of 2003, which helped consumers avoid unsolicited telemarketing.
Brill envisions “Reclaim Your Name” as eventually existing in the context of a changed legislative framework that would require brokers to notify consumers of data collection and allow them to view and correct their personal data. However, Brill’s hope is that data brokers will voluntarily engage in “Reclaim Your Name” before legislation is implemented. Brill said that “a few leaders” in data brokerage have expressed “some interest in pursuing ideas to achieve greater transparency,” and optimistically added, “I sincerely hope the entire industry will come to the table to help consumers reclaim their names.” While some big data brokers such as Acxiom have announced data access programs to allow customers to see the brokers’ data, so far an opt-out measure is not part of the program.
It is unclear whether the data brokers’ response will be as enthusiastic as Brill hopes. Data brokers might conceivably earn credibility with the public by voluntarily opting to give consumers the reins. Yet data brokers sell data to businesses, not consumers. Leading names in the data broker industry, such as ConsumerBase, ResponseMakers, and the USA People Search, remain obscure to consumers. Yet all of these data brokers, and many more, received warning letters in May 2013 informing them that they might be violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Dangers of consumer rights violations are very real, yet there is little public awareness to drive meaningful change.
Brill’s portal, no matter how user-friendly, would rely on consumers to take initiative to hold Big Data accountable, and this could be a stumbling block for consumers who lack computer or internet access, time, or energy. Such consumers might include cancer patients and people with depression, whose names, mailing addresses and drug prescriptions are being sold by data brokers such as LeadsPlease.com, according to the Financial Times.
Commenters such as Kate Kaye on Ad Age point out the increased ramifications of the plan amidst the NSA Verizon scandals and the widespread government collection of citizens’ data (previously covered by the Digest). Natasha Singer of The New York Times has suggested that, by voluntarily participating in “Reclaim Your Name,” brokers might avoid the risk of legislative efforts at more aggressive regulation. But for the moment, that risk to brokers, as well as Brill’s user-friendly online portal alternative, remains firmly in the realm of the hypothetical.
Katherine A. Walecka is a Harvard 1L interested in crime, privacy, and the power of law to change behavior. She’s reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.