As the practices of data brokers emerge from the shadows and perceptions of their ways take root, a growing number of consumers are taking action to reclaim their online identities. Oddly enough in this increasingly social and interconnected world, there is a new alternative aspiration to share nothing or as little as possible about ourselves.
The past decade of an almost unavoidably pervasive social media machine has created a complex cycle of cause and effect. Early naysayers have become evangelists or outright addicts and vice versa as privacy controls, security and the sociological implications of an always-on world come home to roost.
What began as a teenage- to 20-something phenomenon has quickly grown into a massive digital repository that reflects on our modern culture at its best and worst. Only recently, now that the seemingly senseless act of sharing private details or our inner-most thoughts has become second nature, has public opinion begun to shift to a more inquisitive and mindful attitude.
[Related: Inside the Shadowy World of Data Brokers]
Social media doesn't carry all the blame or weight for these changes, though. Because commerce, communications, education and so many other life-changing services are moving online, consumers are simply following the action and gaining conveniences in the process.
Relatively few consumers would willingly give up their smartphones or any must-have service supported by advertising, but more consumers are beginning to question the limits of advertising when it crosses personal values in an unreasonable or downright abhorrent manner. These thoughts and reactions are festering as even more Americans question the legitimacy of a society already under heavy surveillance by its own government.
The Chaos of Opting Out
Living a genuinely private life in today's world requires an equal measure of patience, research and ingenuity. Just ask investigative journalist Julia Angwin who's made it her mission of late to reclaim her identity and not share it with any entity.
As detailed in a recent feature from CBS' news magazine "60 Minutes," Angwin spent a month finding and opting out of the 200-plus data brokers that held information on her. Oftentimes she was required to provide even more information about herself before these data brokers enabled her to opt out. "It kind of felt like a bribe where I had to give this information in the hopes of getting my information back," she tells CBS.
Large data collection firms like Epsilon informed her it would take a couple months to have her data removed and if any of that information was previously shared with other data brokers she would have to contact them directly.
Considering all the hoops and roadblocks she encountered on her journey, it's no wonder her new strategy is to tell outright lies and use disposable identities to throw data brokers off her family's trail. Angwin, who recently wrote a book titled "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," now has a credit card and dozens of online shopping accounts registered under a false identity.
"This is not the world we want to live in," she says.
Angwin quit using Google's online services and switched to DuckDuckGo for search and WhiteHat Aviator for online browsing. She also encourages consumers to install Disconnect, an app that exposes and blocks access to the thousands of data brokers that are otherwise invisibly collecting personal data online, including site visits and search queries.
"It is pretty inconvenient to live the way that I live," she tells CBS, after showing producers the metal-lined bag she uses to shield and store her smartphone. In order to live a private existence, people will unavoidably have to give some things up, she adds.
"The data broker industry isn't all evil. There are companies that are doing bad things and there are companies that are trying to help you. You might want to get a lot of coupons and information about discounts," says Maria Gavrilovic, a producer at "60 Minutes." What's missing is choice, she says, and it's that lack of choice that people are most upset about.
Name and Shame the Bad Actors
For now, choices over who collects our data, how they do it, when they do it and who they share it with, rests almost exclusively on the shoulders of the data marketing industry itself. Self-regulation is the name of the game.
Congress and the Federal Trade Commission are looking into some of the most alarming cases of abuse and appear to be working on a parallel track to increase the transparency of data collection and put more protective measures on the books.
Until that time comes, however, industry groups like the Direct Marketing Association are highlighting the already self-imposed limits of data collection while at the same time dismissing most concerns about nefarious conduct. The DMA is comprised of thousands of companies and organizations that use online data for advertising or marketing purposes.
Rachel Thomas, vice president of government affairs at the DMA, tells CIO.com that members regularly update guidelines for ethical business practices and points to the group's compliance work, DMAChoice.org and YourAdChoices.com as examples of the industry giving consumers choice and control over the ads they receive online or in the mail.
"We are the self-regulatory enforcement for the entire data-driven marketing industry," she says. DMA issues rules and enforces them against their members and others throughout the industry. When a company is found to be out of compliance, DMA's ethics operating committee will engage with that organization to bring them in line.
In about 90 percent of those cases, the company will come into compliance following that step alone. Those that fail to adhere to DMA's guidelines will eventually be named and shamed in a press release from the DMA and turned over to the proper authorities if any laws are being broken.
When asked what consumers should do to protect themselves online, Thomas had little to add. After all, it's her and the DMA's opinion that nothing bad can come from the collection of personal data when it's used purely for marketing or advertising purposes. The worst thing that can happen is a consumer receives an ad that is completely irrelevant, according to Thomas.
"There's less concern or there isn't a concern about how to protect yourself because we make sure businesses are always doing the right thing to begin with," Thomas says. "The reason that this self-regulatory process works honestly is because these companies have really strong incentives to do the right thing by their customers."
Still, DMA receives about 20,000 complaints each year from consumers so clearly not all is well or right by users.
What Would Your Mother Say?
Although fast-moving changes in mobile and social media keep DMA's membership busy regularly updating guidelines, the fundamental principles applied to social media are the same as any other marketing channel. Data brokers must inform you about what data is being collected, provide choices about how they're being marketing to and ensure that data is only being used for marketing purposes, says Thomas. "What is problematic is when you tell consumers half the story," she adds.
Mike Volpe, CMO at HubSpot, shares many of those opinions and approaches the aspiration for privacy in social media similarly. "If you want to use social networking, but you really want to be extremely private with a lot of your information I would encourage folks to stick to Facebook or LinkedIn and use the privacy controls appropriately," he tells CIO.com.
"The information that companies collect about people online goes far beyond social media and probably the smartest thing you could do would be something like using the private mode on your browser," Volpe adds.
"As a marketer, the flip side of it is I can give you a much more personalized and hopefully a much more valuable experience with my company and my brand and my website if you're willing to let me know who you are. It's kind of a two-way street, right?" he says.
"This is just echoing the big trend that consumers are in control more than ever and they have a variety of tools to manage their information and manage their relationships with companies and brands," says Volpe. "The trend is toward more consumer control. Marketers really should just stop fighting that and start embracing it more."
Wary consumers could also apply the mother equivalent to social media, says Thomas of the DMA. "When it comes to social media, think about what your mother would say if it's online. What would your mother say? Should it really be out there? If so, I don't think consumers should be concerned about what happens with that data."