Brown blasts data brokers' refusal to testify to Senate banking panel

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WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday strongly criticized consumer data brokers for refusing to appear before the panel as lawmakers consider steps to strengthen data privacy.

“These companies expect to be trusted with the most personal and private information you could imagine about millions and millions of Americans,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said at a hearing to discuss data security and privacy legislation, referring to companies that collect and sell data on consumers. “They are not even willing to show up and explain how their industry works. Some define this as cowardice. It’s hard to disagree with that.”

Brown’s comments were targeted at companies that have access to information on where consumers use their credit cards, the products they buy, their life insurance policies and even personal information such as whether they are divorced.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he and Brown were committed to compelling members of the data broker industry to testify at a future hearing.

“Private companies are collecting, processing, analyzing and sharing considerable data on individuals for all kinds of purposes. Even more troubling is that the vast majority of Americans do not even know what data is being collected, by whom and for what purpose," Crapo said in an opening statement.

“In particular, data brokers and technology companies, including large social media platforms and search engines, play a central role in gathering vast amounts of personal information, and often without interacting with individuals, specifically in the case of data brokers."

In February, Brown and Crapo called on stakeholders to weigh in on data privacy, protection and collection issues as they consider legislative responses to recent data breaches.

They also wrote to Facebook last month, asking about its data collection and how it shares the information with financial firms to market products to consumers.

Following the hearing, Crapo and Brown sent a letter to the Association of National Advertisers, which the lawmakers said had “declined” an invitation to testify before the committee. They asked the trade group how data brokers ensure personal information of consumers is not used in manner that violates of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. They also asked what Congress can do to ensure consumers are more informed about the use of their data.

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