Bit by bit, byte by byte, American traditions of privacy are eroded every day. Now IDI, a new player in the market, claims to have taken Big Data to the next level by compiling a profile on every adult in the U.S. (Presumably pets are next; they will know I like Fancy Feast.) Bloomberg Businessweek reports:
“The Boca Raton company’s database service, idiCORE, combines public records with purchasing, demographic and behavioral data. CEO Derek Dubner says the system isn’t waiting for requests from clients – it’s already built a profile on every American adult, including young people who wouldn’t be swept up in conventional databases, which only index transactions.”
Who wants this stuff? Mainly private detectives, of which there are 35,000 in the country, according to the story. Forty-three states require that PIs be licensed, so there is oversight. But that amounts to little, the story notes: “When logging in to IDI and similar databases, a PI must select a permissible use for a search under U.S. privacy laws. The Federal Trade Commission oversees the industry, but PI companies are expected to police themselves, because a midsize outfit may run thousands of searches a month.”
So what’s in an idiCORE report? From the story, citing Mr. Dubner: “These personal profiles include all known addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses; every piece of property ever bought or sold, plus related mortgages; past and present vehicles owned; criminal citations, from speeding tickets on up; voter registration, hunting permits, and names and phone numbers of neighbors. The reports also include photos of cars taken by private companies using automated license plate readers – billions of snapshots tagged with GPS coordinates and time stamps to help PIs surveil people or bust alibis.”
The story doesn’t say where other information might come from, but the company late last year acquired marketing profiler Fluent, which claims to have 120 million profiles of U.S. consumers. In June, IDI bought ad platform Q Interactive. Chains with loyalty programs might be selling data. To supplement its legitimate sources, IDI runs two shady coupon websites, which inquire about medical conditions and the like, supposedly so discounts on products might be offered. Talk about preying on the dumb.
Mr. Dubner downplays the threats to privacy, citing such uses as locating a missing person or catching fraud or terrorism suspects. The concept of PIs and detectives trading information goes back a long way.
How accurate are individuals’ profiles? That is a major question, because databases are easily fouled up as information is imported. (The job is too big for mere humans, explaining why the NSA can’t identify terrorists despite vacuuming up billions of phone calls, e-mails and postings on social media.) Case in point: One of my assistants constantly gets mail at her house addressed to people who have NEVER lived there. Because data companies can’t figure out she’s divorced, mail for her ex shows up every week.
On the other hand, technology consultant Roger Kay says time is on the side of the data gatherers: “The cloud never forgets, and imperfect pictures of you composed from your data profile are carefully filled in over time. We’re like bugs in amber, completely trapped in the web of our own data.”