FTC head warns about ‘massive profiles’ of info

Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez warned this weekend about the potential perils of companies that collect billions of bits of information about how people shop, eat, work and live.

The companies generate “massive profiles” about people, Ramirez said on PBS’s "NewsHour,” which include details about their income, political affiliation, health and religion, among many other areas. 

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“The question that causes us some deep concern is what are the implications of being categorized in that way?” she asked. “There is a potential for these categories to be used in ways that could ultimately be discriminatory or could raise other sensitive concerns.”

Last month, the FTC released a report of nine of the information collection companies, known as data brokers. The firms sell people's information to advertising companies or use to perform background checks.

The survey did not find any instances of the companies breaking the law but called for new ways for people to control their data.   

In particular, the FTC urged the government to set up a central online portal where people could see how their information was being used.  

“We would like to see some centralized mechanism that consumers could go to and, from there, be able to access the individual websites of these various companies, who in turn would then provide information about their specific data collection practices and offer ways that consumers could control that,” Ramirez said on PBS.

That would need legislation from Congress, however.

While there has been some focus on the issue on Capitol Hill, Ramirez said that companies shouldn’t wait to take steps on their own. Consumers, too, should be sure to be aware of privacy controls and decide whether or not they want to opt out of having their data scanned.