Skip to main content

The secret eyes watching you shop

By Edith Ramirez
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
Businesses are gathering mountains of data on how you shop, what you buy and where you live
Businesses are gathering mountains of data on how you shop, what you buy and where you live
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez warns consumers about invisible data brokers
  • Transactions quietly surrender a gold mine of data, from where you live to what you like
  • FTC wants Congress to improve the transparency of data broker industry
  • It also wants brokers to create central website so consumers can see their own data, opt out

Editor's note: Edith Ramirez is chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Who doesn't like getting those retail discounts or free gift coupons from their favorite stores?

But did you know there were strings attached, invisible eyes tracking your every consumer move? And there's little you can do to stop it.

We want to do something about that.

Businesses have long sought to attract and retain customers by recording and analyzing your shopping and lifestyle habits. To do so, they often rely on "data brokers" -- companies that collect and share our personal information and label us based on what they learn. And they do this mostly without our knowledge.

Edith Ramirez
Edith Ramirez

That fashionable handbag you found on sale? They know about it. That great deal you got on the BBQ grill from the hardware store? They're tracking that too. And that box of Cheerios? They already assumed you were going to buy that before you even entered the store.

The data broker industry has been booming in recent years, due to new technologies that enable the collection of massive quantities of our personal information. Because of the sheer volume of data we leave in our wake when we shop, browse the web, order a magazine, or post to social media sites, we are largely giving them all this valuable information.

Data brokers scoop up the digital breadcrumbs we leave as we shop in stores and online, and apply "big data" analytical tools to predict where we're going, what we'll buy, and what we'll do -- sometimes even before we know ourselves what we'll buy next.

There's no question that the personal information that data brokers sell to retailers, financial firms, hotels, airlines and other businesses can provide benefits to consumers and our growing digital economy. It can help direct goods and services that are tailored to our interests and assisting businesses to combat fraud by verifying consumers' identities.

They also take this information and use it to lump us into various, shorthand categories like "Affluent Baby Boomer" and "Bible Lifestyle."

But if a data broker categorizes you as an "Urban Scrambler," meaning a low-income minority, are you more likely to receive an offer for a payday loan than a credit card?

Target and Neiman Marcus hacks
Gov't. cracks down on weight-loss scams
Stopping the patent trolls

What are the implications of being labeled as "financially challenged?" Will it mean you are cut off from being offered the same goods and services, at the same prices, as your neighbors?

Do you want a company to know that you have diabetes, high cholesterol, or another medical condition as long as it is willing to pay the going rate for health data?

Most Americans don't even know that data brokers exist, let alone that they collect and trade a staggering amount of our personal data. Brokers operate invisibly, buying and selling data about us without interacting directly with us. Too few offer easy ways for us to access our information or opt-out of their system of data collection.

The Federal Trade Commission, a bipartisan agency that works to protect consumers, is seeking to shed light on this largely unknown industry. The FTC has just released a detailed study of nine data brokers.

We found that data brokers collect billions of pieces of data on nearly every American consumer, often merging online and offline information. Data brokers are also making potentially sensitive inferences about consumers -- about their health, financial status, and ethnic backgrounds. And consumers have little if any window into this process, let alone meaningful control or choice about how their data is shared among businesses.

This week, the FTC has called on Congress to improve the transparency of the data broker industry, and to provide consumers more control over their personal information. We also recommend that Congress require data brokers to create a centralized website, among other measures, so that consumers can access their own data and opt out of data collection and retention.

I also believe data brokers should be required to take reasonable steps to ensure consumer information is not used for unlawful purposes, such as to illegally discriminate.

We need better transparency into how data brokers collect and use our personal information to help ensure that we not go down a path that leads to unfair exclusion, but rather one that widens opportunities for all consumers.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT