Intel's team inside a Facebook data center, via Intel's Flickr
Acxiom, a major data broker that helps fuel targeted ads for the likes of Facebook, has taken a big step towards revealing just what advertisers know about you. The company just launched aboutthedata.com, a new site that allows you to find out just what information Acxiom has about your life and interests.
Data is the currency of the internet, and advertising tech firms like Acxiom make their bones off of helping companies target ads more effectively. And as users increasingly become wary of ads that feel a little too targeted, Acxiom's initiative—which produces a straightforward profile of your basic info and interests—is aimed at clearing the air with a little transparency.
"We are not going to get anywhere by hiding," Acxiom CEO Scott Howe told the New York Times. "You have to make things visible." The new site allows users to opt out of Acxiom's service, which could certainly hurt the company's bottom line, but its counter-pitch is that by opting out, users will lose out on ads that actually work. Again, Acxiom hopes that openness will breed more comfort with the ads that fund just about everything we do online.
But what exactly does the firm know? Naturally, I had to use myself as a guinea pig. First, some background info on myself as a user: I signed up using an email I use fairly carelessly around the web, I'm not obsessive about hiding my data, and my social media profiles give up a good amount of info about my basic background. In short, I wouldn't be surprised if data firms knew a fair bit about me.
Acxiom requires you to sign up with a fair bit of personal data in order to make sure they're giving info about you to the right person. That felt a bit weird on its own, although I highly doubt this is the sneakiest spam email scam ever.
After authenticating myself, Acxiom asked a rather existential question:
And with that came the goods. Aboutthedata.com breaks user data down into the usual categories you'd expect for ad and demographic information. It's the same stuff advertisers have prized since the pre-web days.
First up was characteristic data, or the basic profile of who you are. As I suspected, I'm a male American in my mid-20s.
It's pretty straightforward, although not totally correct. While I did complete college, I finished college too. I'm not single, my voting record's more mixed than Acxiom suggests, and I don't know if I'd call myself a professional. But hey, I'll take it. And if it really bugs you, you can edit the data if you want.
Surprisingly, the only other category that had info on me was economic data, which featured a pair of salary ranges for people in my household. (Neither was correct, but they weren't too far off.) I don't currently own a home or a car, but I still expected something, like shopping or interest data.
I can't believe I'm asking this, but why doesn't Acxiom know more about me? According to the site, the company collects data from three sources:
- Government records, public records and publicly available data — like data from telephone directories, website directories and postings, property and assessor files, and government issued licenses.
- Data from surveys and questionnaires you fill out.
- General data from other commercial entities where consumers have been provided notice of how data about them will be used, and offered a choice about whether or not to allow those uses — like demographic data.
I don't fill out surveys and I check "no" to sharing data when I can, so I suppose there's not much Acxiom really can know about me. While I'm happily surprised to see that the data broker is less sneaky about data mining than I perhaps thought, I also have to wonder just how valuable said data actually is. And, really, Acxiom is just one company. Google surely knows more about me than even I do. Still, a little bit of transparency is always nice.