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Can You ‘Reclaim Your Name’?

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Feel like you’ve lost control of your identity and personal information? The “Reclaim Your Name” initiative aims to win control back for you.

Reclaim Your Name is the brainchild of FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, who ventured into the belly of the Beast on Monday — AdAge.com — to make a case for more consumer control over Big Data.

“Data brokers, marketers and other companies that join the big-data stampede while ignoring basic privacy principles do so at their own peril,” she wrote. “Brushing … principles aside has led some companies to adopt a ‘collect first, ask questions later’ approach to personal data.”

Brill announced Reclaim Your Name earlier this year, during the height of the NSA eavesdropping scandal. Her point: Government monitoring might sound alarming, but for most Americans, corporate monitoring is a much more real possibility.

Reclaim Your Name calls on the data collection industry to make it easy for consumers to find out what information data hoarding firms have, and to fix any errors. Brill envisions a web portal, one-stop-shop for finding data and correcting mistakes. Already, we’ve seen some steps on this direction: earlier this year, data broker Acxiom unveiled AboutTheData.com, which lets consumers get a sense of the billions of pieces of data Acxiom houses on its servers.

Putting the Burden on Consumers

Reclaim Your Name is a good start but falls short of a similar effort in Europe known as “The Right to Be Forgotten.”

European lawmakers have been considering the simplest of privacy proposals for the past two years:  legislation that would allow consumers to tell firms they must “forget” everything they know about them.

After years of negotiations, a European Parliament committee last week recommended an update to EU data privacy laws that would include a more precisely-named “right to the erasure of data.” The rules also give consumers the right to change their minds after they give a company like Facebook authority to profit from use of data. The new rules would require firms to make withdrawal of consent as easy as giving consent.

Brill’s Reclaim Your Name effort, while an excellent start, is a half-measure when compared to Europe’s proposal. It does require firms to make it easy for a consumer to object to misinformation; that’s good. However, it all but concedes that a long list of firms consumers have never heard of have the right to profit from buying and selling personal information.

Reclaim Your Name would put the burden of reclaiming on consumers, who would have to visit the imagined clearinghouse site to fix errors and grasp the extent of corporate monitoring. Behaviorists would rightly predict only a tiny fraction of consumers might bother to do so.

Tracking the Source of Mistakes

Privacy law expert Anita Ramasastry, of the University of Washington, raised another potential shortcoming of the U.S. effort in a recent column. Will consumers victimized by mistakes be able to get to the bottom of the error, or be sentenced to the digital wild goose chase already familiar to many victims of inaccuracy?

“Would data brokers have a duty to reveal how they obtained data—which source they purchased it from, or what database it comes from?” she wrote. “Tagging and coding the origins of data is crucial if consumers are going to have any hope of being able to pursue information trails and figure out how mistakes on their credit report got made.”

Of course, the elephant in the server room is the appearance of mistakes in the first place.  Everyone and their (sometimes incorrectly identified) family members have shown that data broker databases are riddled with errors. The FTC showed it last year. I showed it by using AboutTheData.com

It would be a tragedy of Orwellian proportions if all a Reclaim Your Name portal accomplished was to enlist consumers in a massive free crowdsourcing effort to fix bad Big Data for data brokerage firms. Brill talks about increasing consumer choice in her proposal, but unless that choice includes something similar to a right to be forgotten, and unless the burden is on the industry — not consumers — to make those preferences clear, Reclaim Your Name will simply be a cute, rhyming slogan.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

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