Privacy and Consumer Profiling
Profiling is the recording and classification of behaviors. This occurs through aggregating information from online and offline purchase data, supermarket savings cards, white pages, surveys, sweepstakes and contest entries, financial records, property records, U.S. Census records, motor vehicle data, automatic number information, credit card transactions, phone records (Customer Proprietary Network Information or “CPNI”), credit records, product warranty cards, the sale of magazine and catalog subscriptions, and public records. Profiling has sparked an entire industry euphemistically labeled “Customer Relations Management” (CRM) or “Personalization.”
Companies collect information derived from a number of resources to build comprehensive profiles on individuals in order to sell products and to sell dossiers on behavior. This is often done without notice or extending a choice to the individual to opt-out of the dossier building. These dossiers may be used by marketers for target advertising, and they may be sold to government for law enforcement purposes. Companies also “enhance” dossiers that they already own by combining or “overlaying” information from other databases. These dossiers may link individual’s identities to the following attributes:
- Social Security Number
- Shopping preferences
- Health information, including diet type, allergies, arthritis, incontinence/bladder problems, diabetes, hearing loss, prostate problems, and visual impairment, birth defects
- Marital status
- Financial situation (solvency, creditworthiness, loan amounts, credit cards)
- Date of Birth
- Household income
- Race and ethnicity
- Physical characteristics, such as height and weight
- Household occupants (whether an individual has children)
- Telephone number
- Utility usage (electric or gas usage, telephone usage, cable or satellite usage, Internet subscription, celluar phone usage)
- Magazine subscriptions
- Level of education
- Whether an individual is likely to respond to “money-making opportunities”
- Congressional district
- Size of clothes worn
- Habits (smoking)
- Arrest records
- Lifestyle preferences
- Hobbies (whether and what the individual collects)
- Religion (affiliation and denomination)
- Characteristics of residence (size, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, sale price, rent and mortgage payments)
- Type of automobile owned
- Characteristics of automobile owned (year, make, value, fuel type, number of cylinders, presence of vanity or special membership plates)
- Whether the individual responds to direct mail solicitations
- Contributions to political, religious, and charitable groups
- Membership in book, video, tape, and compact disk clubs
- Mail order purchases and type
- Product ownership (beeper, contact lenses, electronics, fitness equipment, recreational equipment)
- Pet ownership and type
- Interests (including gambling, arts, antiques, astrology)
- Book preferences
- Music preferences
These profiles are also indexed by other factors, such as wealth. For instance, American List Counsel sells an “ultra affluent database” that is overlaid with information on age, sex, and presence of children. The database includes the individuals’ home phone numbers. Many of the “affluent persons” databases are mined from public record filings (Security and Exchange Commission, State Corporations Registration lists) where individuals are compelled by law to reveal their personal information.
Profiling companies have well-developed lexicons to classify individuals. Claritas, for instance, divides individuals into fifteen different groups, which are in turn categorized into various subgroups. These include:
- “Elite Suburbs” (Blue Blood Estates, Winner’s Circle, Executive Suites, Pools & Patios, Kids & Cul-de-Sacs).
- “Urban Uptown” (Urban Gold Coast, Money & Brains, Young Literati, American Dreams, Bohemian Mix).
- “2nd City Society” (Second City Elite, Upward Bound, Gray Power).
- “Landed Gentry” (Country Squires, God’s Country, Big Fish Small Pond, Greenbelt Families).
- “Affluentials” (Young Influentials, New Empty Nests, Boomers & Babies, Suburban Sprawl, Blue-Chip Blues)
- “Inner Suburbs” (Upstarts & Seniors, New Beginnings, Mobility Blues, Gray Collars).
- “Urban Midscale” (Urban Achievers, Big City Blend, Old Yankee Rows, Mid-City Mix, Latino America).
- “2nd City Center” (Middleburg Managers, Boomtown Singles, Starter Families, Sunset City Blues, Towns & Gowns).
- “Exurban Blues” (New Homesteaders, Middle America, Red White and Blues, Military Quarters).
- “Country Families” (Big Sky Families, New Eco-topia, River City USA, Shotguns and Pickups).
- “Urban Cores” (Single City Blues, Hispanic Mix, Inner Cities).
- “2nd City Blues” (Smalltown Downtown, Hometown Retired, Family Scramble, Southside City).
- “Working Towns” (Golden Ponds, Rural Industria, Norma Rae-ville, Mines and Mills).
- “Heartlanders” (Agri-Business, Grain Belt).
- “Rustic Living” (Blue Highways, Rustic Elders, Back Country Folks, Scrub Pine Flats, Hard Scrabble).
These profiles can be purchased at surprisingly low prices. Many companies will sell information at a cost of $65 per thousand names.
Profilers prefer “complied lists”–databases generated from white pages, directories, public records, and membership lists to “response lists.” Response lists are generated from catalog sales and other methods where the consumer responds to a solicitation. Compiled lists are more lucrative for profilers because they can overlay data with lifestyle behavior and engage in telemarketing without the consumer’s permission.
In the process of aggregating profiles, any number of persons may acquire the information of another. In fact, one of the largest commercial profilers, Metromail (now owned by Experian), used prisoners to enter personal information from surveys into computers. This resulted in a stalking case where a prisoner harassed a woman based on information she submitted on a survey. The woman received mail from a convicted rapist and burglar who knew everything about her–including her preferences for bath soap and magazines. In fact, Metromail maintained a voluminous amount of data on the woman. Metromail had twenty-five pages of personal data on her, including her income, and information on when she had used hemorrhoid medicine.
The woman sued (Beverly Dennis, et al. v. Metromail, et al., No. 96-04451, Travis County, Texas.) and as a result of a class-action suit, Metromail may no longer use prisoners to process personal information. During litigation, Metromail claimed that they had not violated the woman’s privacy, that they had no duty to inform individuals that prisoners were processing their personal data, and that the data processed was not highly intimate or embarrassing.
Many of the profiles are bought and transmitted electronically over the Internet with little regard for the purposes for which the information will be ultimately used. In fact, to demonstrate the indiscriminate sale of personal information, in 1996 Kyra Phillips of the CBS affiliate KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, purchased personal information on 5,000 children from Metromail, which was owned by Donnelly Marketing. The reporter used the name Richard Allen Davis, who had confessed to the murder of Polly Klaas and was on trial for the crime, to purchase the children’s contact information.
No aspect of an individual’s private life is too sensitive to be categorized, compiled, and sold to others. For instance, the Medical Marketing Service sells lists of persons suffering from various ailments. These lists are cross-referenced with information regarding age, educational level, family dwelling size, gender, income, lifestyle, marital status, and presence of children. The list of ailments includes:
- Allergy – Nasal
- Allergies – Wheat
- Alzheimerís (Incl. Adult Caregiver)
- Athletes Foot
- Breast Cancer
- Celiac – Sprue
- Chewing and Swallowing Difficulties
- Chronic Back Pain
- Clinical Depression
- Colon Cancer
- Contact Lenses
- Crohns Disease
- Diabetes – All (also Type 1 and 2)
- Dry/Flaky Skin
- Frequent Chapped Lips
- Frequent Cold Sores
- Frequent Flu
- Fungus Infections
- Fungus Infect ñ Nail/Foot
- GERD / Acid Reflux / Ulcers
- Hair Loss/Baldness
- Hearing Impaired/Hearing Aid
- Heart Attack
- Heartburn/Acid Indigestion
- Heart Disease
- High Blood Pressure
- High Cholesterol
- Incontinence- Urine
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Lactose Intolerance
- Low Protein Disorder
- Lyme Disease
- Menstrual Cramps
- Motion Sickness
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Parkinsonís Disease
- Prostate Cancer
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Sensitive Teeth
- Spinal Cord Injury
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Use Wheelchair
- Yeast Infection
Accuracy of the Profiles
There are serious problems with the accuracy of profiling data. Self-reported data, such as information solicited on product warranty cards, tends to be exaggerated. Individuals tend to report higher salaries then the actually earn and indicate interests in which they may not actually participate. Other profiling information, such as data mined from public records, may be linked to the incorrect person. For instance, in April 2001, former Privacy Foundation CTO Richard Smith requested his ChoicePoint dossier and concluded that the file contained “more misinformation than correct information.”
Who is Behind Profiling?
The profiling industry group, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), is the primary apologist for this dossier building. The group lobbies extensively against privacy rights that would limit the ability of entities to collect and exploit individuals’ data.
The group has staved off legislation by concocting self-regulatory opt-out lists for individuals who wish to limit the amount of commercial solicitations they receive. For instance, the DMA operates the Mail, Telephone, and E-Mail preference services. Individuals can submit their names and contact information to these services to avoid direct mail and other solicitations. However, the DMA charges for this service on both ends: First, the marketer much purchase the preference services for a fee in order to determine who has opted-out. Second, if an individual wishes to opt-out via the preference services, the individual must by a $5 fee and send their credit card number to the DMA. (These services are free for those who send their contact information to the DMA by postal mail.) And, after an individual goes through the trouble of opting-out, the DMA will remove the individual from the list automatically after 5 years.
Catalog sales companies and magazines sold profiling data for many years before the advent of online tracking and profiling. This data is often keyed to specific information about the subscriber or purchaser.
Experian is one of the prime providers of cooperative database information provided from catalog and magazine sales. These include:
- Z-24SM Catalog Database “It’s a fact: Recent buying activity predicts future purchase behavior. Experian’s fast growing Z-24 consortium database delivers proven buyers like no other source. Z-24 includes more than 590 leading catalog titles with over 600 million transactions from 65 million households. We add demographic and lifestyle data from the INSOURCE enhancement database along with product affinity scores to further increase selection and selectivity.”
- CircBaseSM “What we read says a lot about who we are. This cooperative database features the readership activities of more than 90 million individuals covering almost 274 publications.”
The Direct Media List Showcase has a searchable index of many profiling datacards from catalog and magazine purchases online. These include:
- Lists of Catholics who subscribe to Newsweek Magazine: “NEWSWEEK HAS IDENTIFIED THE CATHOLIC SUBSCRIBERS WITH INFOBASE LIFESTYLE AND DEMOGRAPHIC INFORMATION. NEWSWEEK CATHOLIC SUBSCRIBERS NOT ONLY RESPOND TO CATHOLIC APPEALS BUT TO A VARIETY OF OTHER FUNDRAISING AND NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATIONS DEDICATED TO HUMANITARIAN, CULTURAL AND HEALTH CAUSES.”
- Lists of Catholics who make charitable donations: “CATHOLIC DONORS TO RELIGIOUS APPEALS NOW YOU CAN REACH CONCERNED, GIVING CATHOLIC DONORS WITH THIS BRAND NEW FILE. THESE DONORS HAVE MADE CONTRIBUTIONS TO SEVERAL DIFFERENT CATHOLIC ORGANIZATIONS, AND WILL BE VERY RESPONSIVE TO TRADITIONAL CATHOLIC APPEALS.”
- Dr. Leonard’s Healthcare Lifelines lists: “THE DR. LEONARD’S HEALTHCARE FILE HAS BEEN OVERLAYED WITH DATA TO IDENTIFY THE ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS BACKGROUNDS OF THEIR CUSTOMERS. THESE MATURE BUYERS ARE RESPONSIVE MAIL ORDER BUYERS WHO PURCHASE HIGH QUALITY, ATTRACTIVELY PRICED PRODUCTS TO ENHANCE THEIR LIVES. PRODUCT LINE INCLUDES HEALTH CARE, PAIN RELIEF, PERSONAL CARE AND HOME ACCESSORIES.”
- Lists of adults interested in consumer magazines: “PRIME TIME FROM HEARST MAGAZINES ARE AGE 55+ WHO SUBSCRIBE TO AT LEAST ONE OF HEARST’S 12 PUBLICATIONS. THESE ACTIVE SENIOR CITIZENS ARE INTERESTED IN READING, COOKING, CRAFTS, GARDENING, HOME DECORATING, AND TRAVEL.”
Dunhill International Lists is one of the principal telemarketing and direct marketing companies. It offers lists on:
- Affluent America: “This is the most comprehensive database of millionaires, multi-millionaires and billionaires and their wealthiest neighbors available anywhere. The Dunhill Affluent America file represents the top 5% of American Families. The total count is over 100% greater than any other wealthy file and is viewed as the most complete database of it’s kind. These are the “cream of the crop.”
- Sub-Prime Auto Loan Applicants: “reach currently active high interest rate credit users. Many have had their loan applications (auto, home, credit card) rejected due to a poor credit history or have no credit history. These individuals are in dire need of credit. They face the challenge of everyday finances. They are looking to re-establish and rehabilitate their credit. They could not qualify for a conventional loan and therefore financed an automobile with a sub-prime auto lender.”
- Opinion Molders Database: “Effective Mailing Lists to Reach ìInfluentialsî in Media, Government, Business, Religion, Education, Medicine, Environment and more!”
For more lists, see Direct Media’s List Showcase, Direct Marketing News’ List Directory, and Dunhill’s International Lists.
The National Change of Address Service (NCOA) and the Locatable Address Conversion System (LACS)
The National Change of Address Service (NCOA) is administered by the U.S. Postal Service. Groups that subscribe to the NCOA can obtain updates when a current customer makes a permanent change of address request to the Postal Service. This is the one of the primary methods by which companies obtain individuals’ addresses after they move. Businesses can purchase the updates for as little as $5 per thousand names.
One can evade the NCOA by making a “temporary” change of address order. Temporary changes of address are not reported to the NCOA service, and thus are not forwarded to businesses that are attempting to continue sending junk mail. Temporary orders give individuals the ability to forward mail to a new address for a full year.
A similar service used by profilers is the Locatable Address Conversion System (LACS). The LACS is a list of persons who live in rural areas whose addresses have been standardized as a result of development and the deployment of government services. There are over four million addresses in the LACS.
- National Change of Address Service, United States Post Office..
- Locatable Address Conversion System, United States Post Office.
- If it’s privacy you want, you’ve got to seize it, Government Computer News, March 3, 1997.
- Remarks of the Honorable Gary Condit on the Postal Privacy Act of 1995, CPSR Website, January 9, 1995.
- Postal Privacy Act of 1995, 104 H.R. 434, THOMAS Database.
- Dunhill’s Consumers With New Addresses Database. “Here’s a huge file of new movers who have reported a change of address. This credit worthy audience has recently notified their creditors of their new address. Available as a monthly hot list, this list provides approximately 1 million names per month.”
Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI)
Telecommunications companies that provide local, long distance, and wireless services collect CPNI based on individuals’ telephone calling behaviors. CPNI includes subscribers’ names, addresses, services, amount of usage of services, and calling records. “Calling records” are lists of phone numbers that the subscriber receives calls from or dials. Most people consider CPNI private, and under a 1996 telecommunications law, companies must first gain permission from the subscriber (opt-in) before using CPNI for marketing. However, telecommunications companies have challenged the interpretation of that law, and seek to sell CPNI and allow marketing and profiling based on individuals’ calling behaviors with only opt-out protections.
In November 2001, EPIC filed comments joined by seventeen other organizations in support of opt-in protections for CPNI. In addition, the National Association of Attorneys General filed comments joined by thirty-nine states in support of opt-in provisions for CPNI.
- EPIC CPNI Page.
- EPIC CPNI Comments to FCC, November 6, 2001.
- EPIC CPNI Reply Comments to FCC, November 16, 2001.
- Qwest Plan Stirs Protest Over Privacy, New York Times, January 1, 2002.
- National Association of Attorneys General CPNI Comments to FCC (PDF), December 26, 2001.
- Groups Urge FCC To Uphold Phone Privacy Rules, Newsbytes, November 7, 2001.
Selling personal information on students and children is big business. See EPIC’s Student Privacy Page for more information about student profiling. See EPIC’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act Page for information about online marketing to children.
Supermarket “Club” or “Loyalty” Cards and Retail Surveillance
Many supermarkets are offering membership cards that grant discounts to consumers. What often goes unmentioned is that these club cards enable the store to create detailed profiles of individuals’ consumption habits. These profiles are linked to individually-identifiable information, often with the requirement at enrollment that the consumer show state-issued identification. Since many supermarkets sell more than just food (alcohol, cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, etc), the companies can collect volumes of information about individuals’ habits.
The danger in this profiling is increased by the fact that supermarkets are not limited by law in sharing the information they collect. A supermarket can sell the information to a health insurance company or to other aggregators in order to make a more complete profile on an individual.
The risks of profiling based on consumption are often derided by supermarket profilers. They may say that “no one cares if you like asparagus more than broccoli.” But, that’s not the issue. Individuals have different definitions of sensitive information. And the profilers aren’t interested in whether you’re buying one vegetable over another. They are more likely to want to know whether an individuals is buying baby diapers or adult diapers (Experian offers a database of persons who are incontinent).
Supermarket profiles can be used against consumers. For instance, Von’s Supermarket of California sought to introduce “loyalty card” records in a court case where a consumer had slipped and injured himself in the store. Von’s wished to prove that the customer may have been alcohol impaired, and that his loyalty card would show numerous purchases of alcohol. The evidence was ultimately never introduced.
In 1997, the Drug Enforcement Administration subpoenaed data from the customer database at Smith’s Foods. The DEA sought to discover whether a group of individuals were buying a suspicious amount of plastic baggies.
A January 2003 article in the Wall Street Journal confirmed that anti-card activists at Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) have argued for years: supermarket shopping cards do not result in savings: “We found that, most likely, you are saving no money at all. In fact, if you are shopping at a store using a card, you may be spending more money than you would down the street at a grocery store that doesn’t have a discount card.”
- Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN).
- The Discount Grocery Cards That Don’t Save You Money, Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2003.
- E-Interview: Reconnecting The Loyalty Marketing Disconnect, Morning News Beat, January 17, 2003.
- Shortchanged on Discount Cards? Activists Charge That Promotions Offer No Real Bargains, Washington Post, August 4, 2002.
- Your Grocery List Could Spark a Terror Probe, Village Voice, July 24, 2002.
- John Vanderlippe, Everyday high prices: A comparison of standard supermarket prices, CASPIAN, July 23, 2002.
- The Hovering Salesclerk Is Replaced by a Computer, Washington Post, June 16, 2002.
- Electronic Surveillance (Real Audio), All Things Considered, May 31, 2002.
- ‘Loyalty’ cards cause griping over swiping, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 11, 2002.
- Loyalty Has Its Price, Kiplinger Personal Finance Magazine, October 2001.
- Comments of Beth Givens to the Federal Trade Commission Workshop, Director, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, The Information Marketplace: Merging and Exchanging Consumer Data, March 13, 2001.
- Is Know-It-All Grocery Cart in Future?, Newsday.com (AP), January 28, 2002.
- Your Grocery Purchases on the Web for All to See?, Privacy Journal, March 2001
- The Safeway to Shop, Wired News, October 8, 1999.
- Bargains at a Price: Shoppers’ Privacy, Washington Post, December 31, 1998.
Credit Reporting Agencies and the Credit “Header”
The three major credit reporting agencies (CRAs), Equifax (formerly Retail Credit Inc.), Trans Union, and Experian (formerly TRW), sell credit “header” information for profiling purposes. The credit header is information that appears “above the line” of a credit report. This information includes name, address, phone number, social security number, date of birth, and previous address. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), allows the unregulated sale of credit headers. Individuals cannot opt-out of the credit header sales.
Product Warranty Cards: A Deceptive Information Collection Practice
Expensive items such as electronics and appliances are likely to come with “product warranty cards.” Often, these warranty cards solicit information from the consumer that is wholly unrelated to the purchase (income information, number of persons in the household, ages, interests, hobbies, ailments, etc). The wording of the warranty cards as well as the lack of privacy policies suggest to the consumer that they must provide this information in order to register the product. This is not the case. Individuals do not need to provide the personal information requested on product warranty cards. One only needs to keep the receipt of purchase and the card in order to secure the warranty.
Many people do not fill out product warranty cards because they know the information provided will be used for profiling. This has resulted in difficulty in issuing product recalls for unsafe items. The Consumer Federation of America has petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to develop a privacy-friendly warranty card for children’s products.
- CPSC Eyes Curbs on Warranty Cards, Privacy Times, October 4, 2001.
- Petition Requesting Rule Requiring Product Registration Cards for Products Intended for Children, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Notice, August 1, 2001.
- To Establish Regulations Governing Recalls and Information For Consumers Concerning Childrenís Products, Consumer Federation of America Petition, June 21, 2001.
- Comments of Beth Givens to the Federal Trade Commission Workshop, Director, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, The Information Marketplace: Merging and Exchanging Consumer Data, March 13, 2001.
Private-Public Profiling Partnerships
There are federal and state legal restrictions that prevent the government from building dossiers on individuals without cause. However, these protections do not prevent the private sector from building comprehensive profiles on individuals. The government can then purchase this information from the private sector. Several companies, including Experian and ChoicePoint, possess multi-million dollar contracts with the federal government to sell personal information to law enforcement. Profiling partnerships generally rely on the compilation of public records, and are covered in more detail on the EPIC Public Records and Privacy Web Page.
In April 2002, private-sector profilers met to discuss how they could compile consumer information for terrorist risk profiling. That meeting, organized by the Center for Information Policy Leadership (CIPL), was attended by a number of companies that are attempting to sell their marketing products for anti-terrorism purposes.
Automatic Number Identification (ANI)
Automatic Number Identification (ANI) is similar to Caller ID (CID). ANI reveals the name, address, and phone number of the telephone subscriber when the line is used to call a toll-free (800, 888), charge (900, 976), or police phone number (911).
Unlike CID, a caller cannot block ANI. Businesses use ANI to collect information from callers. The ANI can automatically return the customers’ profile from a database. Other phone services, such as Automatic Call Distribution can then assign the caller to a certain priority or level of service based on their profile. ANI and related services can also be used to block a customer’s call.
ANI is sometimes used for security purposes, such as the identification or authentication of a caller to a bank or insurance company. However, ANI can be used for secondary purposes such as marketing and profiling. In fact, when ANI was first developed, the subscriber information was not transmitted beyond the central office, except for calls to 911 and law enforcement agencies. Now, any owner of a toll-free or charge number can collect ANI.
Casinos: The Biggest Profiler
Casinos are the biggest users of consumer profiling in any industry. In addition to traditional consumer profiling based on purchases and club membership cards, casinos use facial recognition and other technologies to identify customers. One casino reportedly has a full terabyte of personal information on its customers.
What You Can Do to Avoid profiling: Engage in Privacy Self-Defense
“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed,
debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.”
- Wherever possible, minimize the amount of personal data given to commercial or governmental entities. Do not release contact information where it is unnecessary. Do not give out your Social Security Number unless it is related for tax purposes, such as employment or opening a bank account.
- Read privacy policies. If you are uncomfortable with the collection, sharing, or use of information, tell the business that you’re going elsewhere because of the company’s privacy practices.
- Opt-out from the Credit Reporting Agencies (CRAs) pre-approved credit card offers. By calling 1-888-5OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688), you can stop most pre-approved credit card offers. However, you cannot opt-out from the sale of credit headers. Be sure to specify that you wish to be permanently removed from pre-approved credit card offers, otherwise you will be placed back on the recipient list in two years. To permanently opt-out, you will have to fill out a form that the CRA will mail to you.
- Opt-out from information sharing. Many businesses share your personal information unless you opt-out. Be sure to call your bank, insurance company, and brokerage companies and request to opt-out. You should request to opt out from information sharing under the “Gramm-Leach-Bliley” Act and under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).
- Do not complete product warranty cards. Product warranty cards are a principal method of obtaining profiling data from consumers. If you wish to preserve your warranty, you do not need to send in the card. Simply keeping the warranty card and your receipt will suffice for warranty purposes. If you do wish to register a product in order to receive recall information, list only your contact information.
- If you complete a U.S. Postal Service Change of Address Card, be sure to specify that you are requesting a “temporary” change of address. Temporary change of addresses are not included in the National Change of Address Service, and thus won’t find their way into profiling databases.
- Be wary of catalog merchants. Tell them not to sell, rent, or share information about your purchase. Approximately 90% of mail order or catalog merchants will share your personal information–often with huge “cooperative databases.” Often, this data collected and shared goes beyond a consumer’s address. Catalog merchants will sell information relating to items purchased and details about those items. For instance, if you purchase clothes via mail order, the company may sell your dress, shirt, or pants size to cooperative databases.
- Never purchase anything from a telemarketer-initiated call, an infomercial, or a direct mail solicitation. Individuals who respond to these forms of marketing are placed on special “responder” lists. Individuals recognized as “responders” are more likely to receive additional telemarketing and direct mail.
Stopping Junk Mail with Post Office Prohibitory Orders
Individuals may obtain a prohibitory order to stop junk mail from being sent to a residence. This order can be obtained through a law that prohibits the mailing of advertising materials “which the addressee in his sole discretion believes to be erotically arousing or sexually provocative.” Practically, this means that individuals can obtain a prohibitory order against any junk mail sender.
Individuals wishing to obtain a prohibitory order should visit their local post office for “Form 1500” or click on the link provided below.
The Attorney General’s office no longer sues under this statute to obtain damages. However, individuals should still obtain prohibitory orders against junk mailers. By doing so, marketers who engage in saturation mailings (heavily-discounted mailings delivered to every residence in the area that are usually addressed with “Postal Customer” or “Resident”) must adjust their address lists so that the materials are no longer sent to the address with the prohibitory order. This results in higher costs to junk mailers.
- Application for Listing and/or Prohibitory Order (Form 1500), United States Postal Inspection Service.
- 39 U.S.C. Sect. 3008, Prohibition of pandering advertisements.
- Rowan v. U.S. Post Office, 397 U.S. 728 (1970). “In today’s complex society we are inescapably captive audiences for many purposes, but a sufficient measure of individual autonomy must survive to permit every householder to exercise control over unwanted mail…Today’s merchandising methods, the plethora of mass mailings subsidized by low postal rates, and the growth of the sale of large mailing lists as an industry in itself have changed the mailman from a carrier of primarily private communications, as he was in a more leisurely day, and have made him an adjunct of the mass mailer who sends unsolicited and often unwanted mail into every home. It places no strain on the doctrine of judicial notice to observe that whether measured by pieces or pounds, Everyman’s mail today is made up overwhelmingly of material he did not seek from persons he does not know. And all too often it is matter he finds offensive.”
- Unsolicited Sexually Oriented Advertising, United States Postal Inspection Service.
- Stop Unsolicited Sexually Oriented Advertising in Your Mail, United State Postal Inspection Service.
- Postal Bulletin PB 21977, United State Postal Inspection Service, July 30, 1998. “The prohibitory order. This order aids in protecting customers from receiving pandering advertisements through the mail. An addressee may obtain a prohibitory order against the mailer of an advertisement that the addressee determines, in his or her sole discretion, to be offering matter for sale that is erotically arousing or sexually provocative, as defined in title 39, United States Code, 3008. Postmasters may not refuse to accept a Form 1500 because the advertisement in question does not appear to be sexually oriented. Only the addressee may make that determination. The order prohibits the mailer from sending any further mail to the applicant (and his or her eligible minor children included in the application), effective on the 30th calendar day after the mailer receives the order.”
- U.S. Laws on Direct Mail, Junkbusters.
- Lawsuit After Prozac Arrives in Mail, New York Times (AP), July 6, 2002.
- All Eyes Are on You, Popular Science Magazine, July 2002.
- In Terror War, Privacy vs. Security: Search for Illicit Activities Taps Confidential Financial Data, Washington Post, June 3, 2002.
- J. Edgar Mueller, New York Times, June 3, 2002.
- Latest Privacy Mailings Are Hard to Decipher, Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2002. “…Federated Department Stores, which owns Macy’s, recently offered to sell access to its 1.5 million cardholder names. The asking price: $90 per 1,000 names with a minimum order of 50,000 names. For an additional $15 per name, the list will include age, household income and the ages of children.”
- Preference profilers: ‘We know what you bought last summer,’ Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 2002.
- Why Cashiers Want Your Digits, USA Today, April 23, 2002.
- Exploding the CRM Myth, CNET, April 10, 2002.
- The Failure of Customization: Or Why People Donít Buy Jeans Online, Knowledge @ Wharton, March 27, 2002.
- Firms tell customers: ‘So who needs you?’, Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 24, 2002.
- Quova upgrade pins down AOL users, CNET News, February 12, 2002.
- Sun Joins RFID Program, Slashdot, February 9, 2002.
- Homeland Security New Focus of Siebel, Washington Post, February 8, 2002.
- What You Can Do: QwestDex Is Selling Your Data, St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 6, 2002.
- Music Software Users Installed Tracking Program Unknowingly, New York Times (AP), January 5, 2002.
- Judge Approves FTC Restrictions on the Use of Consumer Data, The Standard, May 7, 2001.
- Appeals Court Upholds FTC Order; Trans Union Must Stop Illegal Sales of Consumer Reports to Target Marketers, FTC Press Release, April 16, 2001.
- Paul f. Nunes and Ajit Kambil, Personalization? No Thanks., Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2001.
- Should Prisoners Be Processing Personal Data?, Privacy Journal, September 1998.
- You Are for Sale, PC World, September 1998.
- Class-Action Suit Targets Companies’ Use of Prisoners, Privacy Times, May 17, 1996.
- Personal Files via Computer Offer Money and Pose Threat, New York Times, June 12, 1997. “It was past midnight when Beverly Dennis came home, weary from her second-shift factory job, and found a letter with a Texas postmark among the bills and circulars in the day’s mail. As she read it in her small house in Massillon, Ohio, alone in the dark stare of the sliding glass doors, her curiosity turned to fear. The letter was from a stranger who seemed to know all about her, from her birthday to the names of her favorite magazines, from the fact that she was divorced to the kind of soap she used in the shower. And he had woven these details of her private life into 12 handwritten pages of intimately threatening sexual fantasy. “It can only be in letters at the moment,” the man wrote after describing the sexual acts he planned. “Maybe later, I can get over to see you.”
- Adbusters Media Foundation.
- Stay Free! Magazine.
- Carrie McLaren, Your Ad Here: As advertisers rush to cover every available surface, are they driving us insane?, Stay Free! Magazine, Vol 18.
- Bret Dawson, The Digital Race, Privacy, Shmivacy, Corporations don’t want to know us, they want to know our data, Stay Free! Magazine, Vol 14.
- Comments of Richard Smith to the Federal Trade Commission Workshop, CTO, Privacy Foundation, Privacy and the Dot-com Bubble (PDF), March 13, 2001.
- The Privatization of Big Brother (PDF), Report from Attorney General Mike Hatch of Minnesota.
- Comments of Beth Givens to the Federal Trade Commission Workshop, Director, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, The Information Marketplace: Merging and Exchanging Consumer Data, March 13, 2001.
- The Information Marketplace: Merging and Exchanging Consumer Data, FTC Workshop, March 13, 2001.
- Oscar Gandy, The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information, 1993.
- Robert Ellis Smith, Ben Franklin’s Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity From Plymouth Rock To the Internet, 2000.
Profilers have argued in court that restrictions on how personal information is used violates the First Amendment. These companies believe that privacy protection prohibits “others from talking about you.” This First Amendment argument fails to recognize that US law affords fewer protections to commercial speech, expression that merely proposes a sales transaction. Courts have rejected the argument that marketing should enjoy the same protections as core political expression.
- Trans Union v. FTC, No. 00-1141 (D.C. Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 536 U. S. ____ (2002) . In Trans Union, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that tradelines (credit information that includes name, address, date of birth, telephone number, Social Security number, account type, opening date of account, credit limit, account status, and payment history) could not be sold for marketing purposes because they constituted a credit report for purposes of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Further, the Court rejected the profiler’s claim that the First and Fifth Amendments invalidated the FCRA.
- IRSG v. FTC, 145 F. Supp. 2d 6, No. 00-1828 (D.D.C. 2001)(PDF 1.9 MB). In IRSG, the District Court for the District of Columbia upheld FTC regulations that required information brokers to give notice and an opportunity to opt-out to individuals before selling credit header information (name, address, Social Security number). On summary judgment, the Court rejected IRSG’s First and Fifth Amendment claims. This decision was affirmed in Trans Union v. FTC, No. 01-5202 (D.C. Cir. 2002).
- Trans Union v. FTC, 81 F.3d 228 (D.C. Cir. 1996)(“Trans Union I”). In Trans Union I, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the sale of consumer credit reports for marketing purposes violated the FCRA.
- Dun & Bradstreet v. Greenmoss Builders, 472 U.S. 749 (1985). In Dun & Bradstreet, the Supreme Court held that consumer credit reports concern no public issue, and thus receive reduced Constitutional protection.
Profiling Companies and Technologies