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'Dragnet Nation' author Julia Angwin: May I have my privacy back?

By  |  Published: May 23, 2014

   JULIA ANGWIN, AUTHOR,
   'DRAGNET NATION'
Q&A with author Julia Angwin

Julia Angwin, author, 'Dragnet Nation'

In "Dragnet Nation," Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Julia Angwin takes hard look under the hood of America's data gathering machinery.

Julia Angwin wants her privacy back.

She has closed her LinkedIn account, unfriended all of her Facebook friends, and opened an American Express card under an assumed name: that of her hero and role model, journalistic crusader Ida Tarbell. She even experimented with a "burner" phone to see if privacy were still possible on any front.

Her conclusion? It isn't. Not anymore.

In her latest book, "Dragnet Nation," the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter investigates who is watching us online, what they're doing with the data (including selling it), and why it matters.

On the surface, it may seem perfectly benign that when you purchase a sweater online, sweater ads from other vendors seem to follow you for weeks. But behind the scenes lies the disturbing, unregulated mechanics of consumer surveillance, where your surfing and credit card spending habits may one day come back to bite you in the real world.      

The book's subtitle promises "a quest for privacy, security and freedom in a world of relentless surveillance."

But what it delivers might best be described as the heebie-jeebies.

Q: Is it too farfetched to suggest that retail tracking dwarfs the information gathering that the NSA has been criticized for in the Edward Snowden affair?

A: That is probably too big of a stretch. We still don't know the full extent of the NSA's surveillance, but the fact that it is building the largest data center in the world in Utah suggests that they have assembled the largest trove of personal data that has ever been gathered. By comparison, commercial data gatherers build dossiers that include public records and purchasing habits, but are unlikely to include items collected by the NSA such as phone calling records, e-mail traffic and cellphone location.

Q: So what's wrong with retail tracking anyway? How can it hurt us as consumers?

As commercial data gatherers get more sophisticated at tracking us, we may increasingly be in a situation where retailers have information about our income and our preferences as soon as we walk in the door.

A: Consider the company Dataium, which was providing car dealerships with information about where shoppers had browsed for cars online before they showed up at the dealership lot. As commercial data gatherers get more sophisticated at tracking us, we may increasingly be in a situation where retailers have information about our income and our preferences as soon as we walk in the door. I worry that this will hurt our ability to negotiate for better prices.

Q: To what extent is retail tracking linked to online credit card purchases?

A: When I obtained my files from commercial data gatherer Acxiom, I was surprised at how detailed their records were of my shopping habits. I don't know whether the retailers or the credit card companies -- or both -- shared that data with Acxiom. The commercial data gatherers don't often disclose where they obtain their data about us.

Q: Tell us about the Capital One offer bias. Is it widespread?

A: In 2010, my investigative team found that Capital One was tailoring its online credit card offers to people based on its guesses of their income, location and other personal data. In 2012, we found Staples and other retailers tailoring prices to online visitors based on their location. It's hard to say how widespread these practices are. Each of these investigations took months of intense computer analysis to prove definitively that the price and offer changes were not the result of other factors. This is the kind of work that I believe journalists should be doing and that I plan to continue doing.

To prevent this type of personalized offer -- which is legal, but objectionable to me -- I installed software on my Web browser -- such as Disconnect and Ghostery -- that block many of the online tracking technologies used by marketers. And when I want to be even more anonymous, I use a service called Tor that masks my location.

Q: Tell us how the Ida Tarbell card came into existence and what you learned from the experiment. Do you still use it?

A: I obtained a credit card in the name of Ida Tarbell -- a muckraking journalist heroine of mine -- in order to make purchases with a veneer of anonymity. Of course, I can always use cash to be anonymous, but I wanted to be able to make online purchases and some offline purchases with credit, but still retain some anonymity. So I asked my credit card issuer -- American Express -- to add a new card to my account with the name Ida Tarbell. American Express knows that I pay Ida's bills, but it allows me to be anonymous with restaurants and some online purchases.

Your credit card issuer can and will track purchases -- and truthfully, you want them to track your purchases so they can spot fraudulent transactions. The concern I have is when that data is shared with other entities without your knowledge.

Q: What steps can cardholders take to disable the tracking of online credit card purchases?

A: Your credit card issuer can and will track purchases -- and truthfully, you want them to track your purchases so they can spot fraudulent transactions. The concern I have is when that data is shared with other entities without your knowledge.

Q: Are banks and other financial institutions making use of retail tracking in the same way as, say, Amazon and Eddie Bauer?

A:  Somewhere in the fine print of your financial statements, your bank and other financial institutions are supposed to disclose how they use and share your personal information, according to the privacy requirements of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. However, good luck finding and deciphering that notice to find out what your bank is doing with your information.

Q: How might data surveillance affect your credit score, and what can you do about it?

A: The good thing about your credit score is that it is one of the few parts of the personal data economy over which you have some control. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that individuals be able to see the data used to make credit decisions about them, as well as the right to dispute the data. I'm more worried about the data being used for what is known as alternative scores, or e-scores, which are unregulated.

The good thing about your credit score is that it is one of the few parts of the personal data economy over which you have some control.

For example, I obtained my data from an e-scoring company called eBureau. Its file on me indicated that I had no children, had not completed high school, and had an income of $35,000, all of which are far from the truth. In its promotional materials, eBeureau says its scores can allow or be used to evaluate "newly admitted hospital patients for charity care program eligibility."

Q: You found that credit card companies tailor their card offers based on what they know about each of us. What's the potential danger in that?

A: Price discrimination is generally legal -- think of airline tickets that vary by the time you purchase them -- and experts say that individually tailored prices could increase company profits. Professor Benjamin Reed Shiller at Brandeis University analyzed data about a large panel of computer users and found that Netflix could raise profits by 1.4 percent if it adopted individually tailored prices based on customers' Web-browsing histories. Professor Shiller found that Web-browsing data were more predictive than standard demographic data of users' willingness to pay high prices for a Netflix subscription. "This suggests that first-degree price discrimination might evolve from merely theoretical to practical and widely employed," he concluded.

Q: Should we be relieved or scared that the date trackers apparently don't know or care to know our name? Has this changed the whole nature of privacy and anonymity?

A: The companies that track you as you surf the Web say that their data is anonymous -- you are only identified as user 123456 who visited websites X, Y and Z. However, companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter are also tracking users as they surf the Web -- and if those users are logged into their services, those companies know their users' names. In addition, some websites identify you when you log into their websites and attach a cookie to your computer that includes information from the commercial data brokers files -- such as address, income, and preferences -- that allows tracking companies to identify you by your characteristics. The companies say they strip out the users' names from those files. But the question then becomes: What is anonymity if they know everything about you except your name?

See related: GAO report: Information resellers quickly invading personal lives, Data broker lifts veil on trove of personal, financial info

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Updated: 05-22-2017

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