Lawmakers probe deeper into privacy

House lawmakers stepped up their questioning of companies that collect and store information about consumers both on the Internet and in real life.

In a hearing today, lawmakers interested in drafting legislation that would place restrictions on how Internet and marketing firms collect consumer information, asked Wal-Mart, WPP and privacy advocates detailed questions about how personal information is gathered and used. Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) have been considering a bill, but a draft will most likely not be released until early next year. (See interview with Rush.)

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittees on Comerce, Trade, and Commerce Protection and Comunications, Technology, and the Internet held a joint hearing on the topic--although it was poorly attended by members.

"We've moved from an era of privacy keepers to one of privacy peepers and data-mining weepers who want to turn our information into products," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).  "The product is our records, our privacy, our family's history. We wouldn't let the government do this, so we have to protect against companies that want to do this."

"It is understandable that most Americans simply do not trust that their personal information is properly protected," said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).

Jennifer Barrett, an executive with Acxiom, a marketing company, said the firm could collect 1,500 possible data points about individual consumers, such as age, hobbies, address, occupation and recent purchases. Acxiom typically maintains 20-40 data points on the average person. Acxiom receives that information from public records, surveys consumers fill out voluntarily (such as warranty cards) and information from other companies.

In response to questions from Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), Barrett said consumers can see what data has been stored about them and can change or delete information used for marketing purposes. But consumers cannot find out who else has bought their data from Axciom.

Privacy advocates Chris Hoofnagle of UC Berkeley Law and Pamela Dixon of World Privacy Forum pointed to databases that store personally identifiable information about consumers--such as diseases and other afflictions--without consumers' knowledge.

Boucher wanted to know if privacy legislation, if passed, should apply to both online and offline marketing practices.

Zoe Strickland, Wal-Mart's chief privacy officer, said yes, since most services are offered both on and off the Internet. Hoofnagle agreed that a "broader approach" would be useful, and suggested imposing time limits for storing personal information.