First Look: Acxiom Move to Make Data Transparent Stirs Privacy Debate

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Marketing data analytics company Acxiom, which provides consumer data to banks such as Wells Fargo and HSBC, has announced that it will begin letting consumers see some of the data it's collected on them.

A website set up for this purpose,, will go live on Wednesday. The company further said it may let consumers repair their own records, fixing inaccuracies and adding missing pieces.

It's an unprecedented and clever move that has already landed the company positive coverage — a glowing article in Sunday's New York Times.

If Acxiom does get consumers to log in and correct and complete their own information, that will give the company more data to sell back to its corporate customers. However, this could also open up a can of worms. Acxiom's CEO Scott Howe acknowledged in his Times interview that there are inaccuracies in the company's data, which it collects from a range of sources. There could be backlash as consumers realize how much information Acxiom has stored about them, and that some of it is wrong. And letting people change their own data could cause problems with data verification, as consumers may well want to alter their data to present themselves in a more favorable light.

This same challenge has cropped up for financial companies as they have experimented with bringing social media data into their customer analytics — people lie. (However, if all you're doing is deciding what product to pitch to someone, having a few details wrong is not that big a deal.)

On the other hand, studies have shown that consumers are willing to cough up an astonishing amount of personal information in exchange for something they value, such as financial advice or a discount. A study conducted by ClickFox found that 71% of consumers would give up information such as their location in return for discounts. An Infosys study found that Americans, Europeans and Australians feel comfortable sharing data with banks (76%) and retailers (70%). Most (82%) want their banks to perform data mining for fraud protection and will even switch banks for that service. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study found that 80% of consumers are willing to share personal information if the company lets them know upfront how they are going to use it.

Banks have begun taking advantage of this. For instance, in Bank of America's deal with Cardlytics, consumers opt in to let the bank comb through all their card purchases for information that can be turned into special offers from competing merchants (which pay the bank a fee for this service). Personal financial management providers convince consumers to aggregate all their financial account information in one place in exchange for budgeting or investment tips.

American Express gets people to link their Twitter accounts to their Amex card accounts, so it could potentially mine its members Tweets for valuable marketing information. However, the company says that when a card member syncs, it listens only for specific hashtags about card offers.

Often and more disturbingly, vast amounts of consumer data are collected without their knowledge. This is the dangerous territory Acxiom is venturing into — making customers aware of the troves of data marketers have about them that they didn't even know existed. (Acxiom did not respond to requests for an interview.) The company's motivation, according to the Times article, is that Howe "recognizes that regulation of his industry may be coming and that it's better for Acxiom to be seen as a part of the solution than a part of the problem."

The nationwide credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, are required by law to give consumers a free copy of their credit report once a year. They are also required to respond to consumer complaints about errors within 30 days. It's not outside the realm of possibility that other companies, such as data brokers and financial institutions, could be forced to follow similar rules.

I think there's a need for some entity or group of entities (banks, consumer organizations) to act as a steward and protector of consumers' data, to let the individual control who can see what, when and why and to prevent identity theft. However, it would take a tremendous amount of cooperation and coordination for everyone to agree on one central clearinghouse of consumer data, so it's unlikely to ever happen.

A stronger possibility is that Congress will try to limit the amount of consumer data companies can collect and their use of that data. This is probably a good idea.

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