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Business Costs & Regulation

Giving You More Control Over Your Data

The Reclaim Your Name initiative would give consumers information about who is collecting information about them.

Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill (pictured at left) was given the 2014 Privacy Leadership Award by the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Here are excerpts of Kiplinger's recent conversation with Brill.

How can consumers be harmed by all of the data that’s being collected about them? If the information is inaccurate and is used to make eligibility determinations, it could have important repercussions. People could be turned down because they are not who the data says they are. Or individuals might be harmed if the information is accurate but concerns a sensitive issue -- health conditions such as cancer, diabetes or obesity, for instance, or whether they’re struggling financially, or their race or sexual orientation. This information is traded and sold, and consumers have no insight into it or control over it.

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How does this activity escape regulation? The law that governs health information applies to providers such as doctors, hospitals and health plans, and their business associates. If you go online and search health sites to get information, that’s not covered. The same is true with protected financial information. The law applies to financial institutions, but much of the information we’re talking about is not flowing from financial institutions. It’s free-floating on the Web. Some advertising based on this free-floating information comes right up to the line of a preapproved offer of credit -- which we do regulate. But the lines are blurry.

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What’s your “Reclaim Your Name” initiative about? It’s a proposal designed to be put into place now, led by industry and not requiring legislation. It would give consumers information about who is collecting information about them, what kind of information it is and what choices they have about this data collection. With respect to information used for marketing, consumers should have the right to suppress it. With respect to eligibility decisions, consumers should be able to access and correct information if it’s not right. And with respect to sensitive information such as health, financial condition and sexual orientation, there should be even more robust access to make sure that consumers understand what’s being said about them and that they have a right to control it.

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Will data collection become a front-burner issue? There’s much more interest in this issue, in part because of the revelations about government surveillance, although those issues need to be addressed differently. The President has said he will address commercial data collection as well as government surveillance. Legislation on data brokers has been introduced in the Senate. The Digital Advertising Alliance has created programs to give consumers some control over online tracking, but I have some concerns. The icon [that consumers can click on for more information] shows up in a lot of online ads, but consumer awareness is low and there’s little understanding of what it means. I think do-not-track options through Web browsers are more user-friendly.

What can consumers do? Tools are available to protect their information more. But we need industry to step up to the plate and address these privacy concerns. It’s great to put tools on the dashboard for consumers, but more protections need to be built under the hood. Companies should begin thinking about privacy at the inception of their products and services, and build privacy protections into what they deliver.

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