If you are one of 190 million U.S. adults studied by an obscure company in Little Rock, Arkansas called Acxiom, they have the digital equivalent of what used to be known in spy circles as a dossier on you. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, secret police maintained files on millions of ordinary citizens, consisting of allegations (many by friends and neighbors) of suspicious or subversive activities. Acxiom is a firm that collects and sells information about consumers to companies wanting to sell products to them. The motivations couldn’t be different, but in a weird way, some of the outcomes are the same.
In a recent profile of Acxiom, a New York Times reporter reveals the depth and detail of information that Acxiom can provide. In contrast to the totalitarian state, Acxiom uses only publicly available information, or at least information that consumers voluntarily provide in forms and online interactions. But just like the totalitarian state, Acxiom operates out of the public eye. I had never heard of the outfit before I read the report in the Times, and it is likely that few of my readers have either. And while no one is likely to be hauled off to a prison camp because of information gathered by Acxiom, some strange things are likely to happen to you nonetheless.
Firms like Acxiom are responsible for the creepy phenomenon I have noted in this blog before. After investigating a purchase online one day, I was doing something completely different the next day, and suddenly I found that the ads next to the webpage I was reading were full of products that I was researching online the day before. The feeling this engenders is hard to describe. It isn’t betrayal, exactly, or like someone was reading my mail (although in a sense they were), but more like the sense you might get if you were walking alone in a big city late at night, and started hearing footsteps behind you that kept pace with your walking. Nothing bad has happened yet; it might be a coincidence; but you sense that somebody out there knows something about you and is acting on that knowledge. And you don’t know who it is, or what they plan to do.
I guess it’s the anonymity of the thing that is the creepiest aspect. There is no single person doing this sort of profiling and product placement: it is the outcome of a huge system of cooperation between outfits like Acxiom and large corporations trying to sell things. But anonymous dealings are a common part of life today, so what is the big deal ethically about it?
Several critics that the Times reporter spoke to cited the fact that Acxiom sorts its files into categories that have discriminatory overtones. This categorizing system, termed “PersonicX” (I would really like to speak with the person who thinks up these ugly words), classifies you into one of seventy bins of consumer types, but only if you are not one of those poor or cheapskate customers that insiders term “waste”: folks who steadfastly refuse to buy the nice things that the customized software applications repeatedly offer to them. (I may well be in such a category, which would be fine by me.) And don’t even ask about Acxiom’s databases sorted according to racial types: Caucasians, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians.You can buy information on any of these categories of consumers, and target your pitches in a way that takes race into account.
After thinking about this a while, I confess that although I find the eerily personal ads annoying, I can find no principled moral objection to the business Acxiom is in. The fictional character Sherlock Holmes used to amaze his clients by extrapolating all sorts of facts from the slimmest of physical clues: he’d note a bit of cigar ash here, a shiny spot on a glove there, and like magic he would tell the client his profession, his age, what school he went to, and which side of his face had the best light while he was shaving each morning.
It seems to me that Acxiom is simply doing the same sort of thing Holmes did, except on a large, computerized, and more efficient scale. And like private detectives, Acxiom offers its services to companies indifferently, and takes no particular responsibility for what its customers do with the information they buy. I hope that if an anti-Semite organization wanted some details on the names and addresses of wealthy Jews with children in private schools, for instance, Acxiom would smell a rat and refuse to cooperate. But fortunately, such outfits are not well-heeled enough to afford the kinds of services Acxiom provides.
I think we are experiencing a long-term transition in the definition of privacy, and Acxiom’s activities are just another step along the way. It’s possible that the first printed city directory, probably arising in the 1700s or so, was attended with more than a little concern on the part of people who would prefer not to be found, but that was because they were doing things that profited by anonymity. Anyone who takes economic action of any kind (which means everyone except the very young, the very old, and the institutionalized) has to deal with the fact that information about you is collected by countless organizations, public and private, and resurfaces and recycles through databases indefinitely. As long as the people who have the data are only trying to make a legitimate buck, I see no great harm in their work, and maybe some good if firms that would otherwise turn to blanket spam email target their ads instead on the much smaller number of people who are actually interested in buying what they have to sell.
Just as the only guaranteed way to avoid getting anything stolen is not to own anything, the only way to avoid getting your information collated and refined and sold by outfits such as Acxiom, is not to buy anything — ever. And that’s pretty hard. So we might as well get used to the idea, and hope that the motives of companies that use Acxiom’s data remain as relatively benign as they appear to be now.
This column originally appeared on the Engineering Ethics blog, you can find it by visiting http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/.
Sources: The New York Times article on Acxiom appeared online on June 16, 2012 athttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/technology/acxiom-the-quiet-giant-of-consumer-database-marketing.html.
Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.