Adam Tanner on the selling of personal data

Adam Tanner on the selling of personal data
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An interesting article by Adam Tanner on the Forbes website in which he traces where one particular piece of junk mail came from. Tanner is a fellow at Harvard University’s Department of Government and is writing a book on the business of personal data. He’s looking for answers to questions such as who are the people and firms gathering such information? What details are they putting together, how do they get so much information about us and how do they use that information?

What’s immediately interesting about his article is that the junk mail he chose to investigate came from the American Civil Liberties Union, asking him, unbidden, to make a donation. As he notes “I had not contacted the group previously or shared my information with them.” You would have thought that the ACLU, of all groups, would have been wary of buying data of unknown provenance, and using it to “cold call” people seeking donations. Adam Tanner set about finding out how they had got his name and personal data.

It turns out that the ACLU, like many similar organisations, not only buys job lots of personal data, spending about $100,000 per year to do so, but it is busy selling the personal data of its own members. The justification it gives is that in order to get the $100,000 it needs to buy data, it needs to sell its own members data over and over again to raise a roughly equal sum (When possible, the ACLU says, they prefer to simply swap lists with other organizations without charge.)

When asked to comment, Geraldine Engel, the ACLU’s deputy director of development noted that “Keeping the list (of their members) available to other groups or publications ensures that we will have access to their lists”.

So it’s clear that the ACLU and other similar organisations recognise the principle of equitable reciprocity: “if I give you something then I should expect something of roughly equal value in return”, that they adhere to that rule when dealing with their peers, and that they recognise that if they didn’t they couldn’t continue within that group. Of course, the irony is that they don’t seem to recognise that rule with regard to their own individual members.

Given who the ACLU is, and what they stand for, it’s intriguing to wonder why there seems to be this blind spot with respect to the ownership and treatment of personal data. If we imagine that Adam Tanner had discovered that employees of the ACLU had been selling usage of his car to other organisations, and sometimes cutting out the charging by just lending it to them in return for them lending them one of their member’s cars, and justifying this on the basis that they’d bought permission from another organisation, and that anyway they needed to do this because everybody else was doing it and they wanted to be able to share with their buddies, then I’m sure we’d all be wondering what kind of organisation the ACLU actually was. But when it comes to personal data this seems to be common practice.

Perhaps we are seeing another example of the frequent phenomena of social understandings and mores lagging behind technology? It’s frequently the case that when new technology is introduced it takes time for people to work out the rules that tame and socialise that technology, and allow us to incorporate it with the optimal balance of costs and benefits into our lives. What we are seeing now are our understandings and rules of behaviour racing to catch up with the technology of capturing, analysing and using information on a hitherto unimagined scale.

It’s time we all took stock that the notions of ownership, and the rights (and obligations) that go with that ownership apply to our (intangible) personal data as well as to the (tangible) physical objects we own.