EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Business

October 7, 2012

Who owns your identity?

Digital data mining spurs efforts to curb use without permission

ST. LOUIS — Robert Cole helped a friend learn about his diabetes. Cole, of Ferguson, Mo., 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 websites use cookies and browser fingerprinting to follow users across the Web, while third-party data brokers sell users’ projected online behaviors in real time.

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