Acxiom Corporation is one of the largest technology and marketing companies in the world. It knows more about more people on Earth than many governments.
Globally, it has entries for an estimated 500 million consumers. The New York Times estimates it analyzes more than 50 trillion data transactions every year.
Tech blog Gizmodo dubbed it the “faceless organization that knows everything about you.”
Last December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission ordered the company, and a number of others, to explain how they deal with data.
Here, Acxiom’s chief privacy officer, Jennifer Barrett Glasgow, answers questions — including some asked by QMI Agency readers — as they try to pull back the mystery on what the U.S.-based Center for Digital Democracy has called “Big Brother in Arkansas.” Some answers have been edited for length.
QMI Agency: Specifically, what kind of information and data do you collect, and do you collect it about Canadians as well as Americans?
Jennifer Barrett Glasgow: Acxiom collects three types of data: Data that helps companies market more effectively, data that helps reduce fraud and identity theft and data that helps people find businesses or other people through our directory services.
Our sources for marketing data are public records, information from surveys and data from other providers, which go through a strict process to ensure their data is collected according to our high standards and best practices in the industry.
Acxiom does not have a presence in Canada. For Canada, we only provide business and consumer telephone directory products. We deliver and support our Canadian business from our headquarters in Little Rock, (Ark.)
QMI: What, largely, is the information used for?
J.B.G: We have strict limitations about how our data can be used. Acxiom’s Canadian business and consumer directories are licensed to companies and non-profit organization for their internal use as an automated and inexpensive form of directory assistance or for direct mail and telemarketing purposes. Our directories are also licensed to companies that host directory search engines on the Internet for both consumer and commercial use.
In these instances, the Acxiom listings may be merged with telephone listings from other sources. Many of the sites who license our directories display on the site reference: “Data by Acxiom.”
In other countries, our data is used for two primary purposes: Fraud prevention and marketing.
Our fraud data is used to verify identity and to help companies investigate suspected fraudulent transactions.
Our marketing data is used to provide people with information on goods and services that may be of interest (and) give them access to unique offers and discounts — the No. 1 reason people like a brand.
QMI: How does that data collecting help companies I deal with, or me as a consumer?
J.B.G: We believe that what we do offers tremendous value to both clients and consumers.
Acxiom data collection process enables better connections through customized services for our clients by creating enterprise views for our clients of their customers that span across channels and media, both on- and offline; integrated and smart customer experiences for our clients, no matter how or where their customers engage; and trusted connections with our clients' most important partners
For consumers, the alternative is a world in which advertising is annoying and irrelevant.
QMI: Is there a difference between information that's private and information that's personal when data is collected?
J.B.G: We do not generally categorize data as private. We only deal with personal data, meaning the data is identified with an individual. We do have a classification of sensitive data, which may be close to what you refer to as private.
This is information that an individual would closely protect. An example of sensitive data would be financial information or health information.
QMI: Do you deal with data from Canadian consumers differently than American consumers?
J.B.G: Yes, we follow the legal obligations in each country where we source data. In other countries, we provide a wider range of products and services, as allowed by those laws. In Canada, we only provide business and consumer telephone directory products.
QMI: Privacy is obviously always a concern for consumers. How do you address those concerns?
J.B.G: At Acxiom ,we believe in doing for our customers, not to them. Privacy/compliance is paramount. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Acxiom is the pre-eminent authority on security and privacy of personal data, with a 40-year track record of defending consumer privacy.
(We were the) first company to establish a chief privacy officer, me, in 1991.
(We) review 50,000- 70,000 privacy policies a year.
We’ve worked with the government for many years to shape regulations. Many of our practices … have become industry standards.
QMI: Do you merge data from the real world — let's say, buying habits or information actual stores or companies collect — with the virtual footprint we all leave?
J.B.G: We do not have any data from the virtual world in our Canadian directory products.
In the U.S., we do allow some of our offline data to be combined with our client’s or partner’s online activity. This does give a more complete and a more accurate picture of consumer needs.
QMI: Do you have any concerns with the way much smaller data brokers that may be flying below the radar deal with gathering and using information on consumers?
J.B.G: Yes, there are some new, smaller companies in this space, and they aren’t always transparent about their data practices. We caution clients to pay close attention to the data vendors they are using to be sure the data was collected in a privacy-compliant way.
QMI: Anything else Canadians should know?
J.B.G: Canada has had a privacy law for a number of years that has limited the amount of data collected and used in the marketplace for either marketing purposes or fraud prevention as compared to the U.S. Over time, it will be interesting to see if this trend holds true.