Robert Cole helped a friend learn about his diabetes. Cole, of
Ferguson, searched online, printed out some articles from his
computer and passed along the information.
About six weeks later, Cole began receiving advertisements in the
mail and online for diabetes testing supplies.
He was alarmed by the connection.
Cole, 65, who has no history of the disease, launched into a
personal investigation several years ago about who owns his identity
and personal information and began evangelizing to his family and
friends about the way individual data is mined and potentially used.
He's not alone in worrying about how his digital moves are being
tracked. New efforts are under way to help individuals regain some
control of how their information is collected and shared. And new
research suggests people are beginning to take steps to protect
their privacy online and on cellphones.
Cole called the firm that mailed him brochures to find out how it
obtained his name and address, but he was unable to get an answer.
Eventually, he filed a complaint with the Privacy Rights
Clearinghouse in San Diego and tried to contact the American Civil
Liberties Union to find out who had the right to access and sell
information about him.
"Am I in somebody's database as a diabetic? Because I'm not. I
don't even know how to correct that," he said. What if he applies
for life insurance and is rejected based on a faulty profile? he
asked. Could he be charged higher premiums or be denied credit
because of what he types in his emails or in Google searches?
Automated bots sweep the Web for consumer information, and
across the Web, while third-party data brokers sell users' projected
online behaviors in real time.
Laura McCarthy Jarman, 30, of St. Louis, said she noticed when
she was planning her wedding in the spring that most of the ads she
saw online were related to weddings. "It was just so bizarre," she
said. "You feel like your computer is reading your mind."
She ended up installing an ad blocker, which struck her as ironic
given her own job in public relations and marketing.
It made the time she spent online much more enjoyable, she said.
While she was motivated by both convenience and privacy concerns,
she said, she can appreciate why collecting the information is
important to help businesses and can be useful for some consumers.
Cole has a more philosophical objection.
"I have an issue with how someone can sell my name without my
acknowledgement or agreement," Cole said. If someone is profiting
from selling personal information about his behavior online, he
wants a cut of it.
George Blake, a retired newspaper editor in Atlanta, is hoping to
attract millions of consumers who share Cole's logic. Last month, he
launched two privacy-related websites based on what he believes is a
pent-up public demand for taking back control of personal data.
One of his sites, Money For My Data, lets individuals sign up to
allow companies to sell collected data and take periodic surveys
about interests and future purchases. Individuals can decide which
pieces of their consumer profile they want shared with companies
interested in targeting them for ads, Blake explained. His company
will package and sell the data or work with data accumulators on
sales the users have permitted. His goal is to have individuals get
a percentage of the profit from the sale when their name is included
on such a list.
"Data is the new world currency," he said. "People need to claim
ownership of data in critical mass." Blake believes that attaching a
monetary value to an individual's personal data will help bolster
legal arguments protecting consumer privacy rights.
He's also working on a registry to allow users to opt out of
being tracked online, although an international body, the World Wide
Web Consortium, also has been working on Do Not Track standards for
nearly a year. …