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Paul Nelson, KSL NewsradioAdvertisers are getting better at mining data about people. Now they're combining old methods with new ones.
It's a practice that's been around for a while. After you buy something online, a tracking mechanism called a cookie is placed on your computer so advertisers know where to target you for future sales. This man says he's used to it by now.
He says, "Every time I buy something online, I fully expect to start receiving ads."
Other say they didn't know about it, and they don't like the idea of a company putting something on their computer they don't know about. This woman recently bought shoes online. She says, "It kind of bugs me in a way. I just wanted to buy shoes. I don't need any more ads for them."
Now, imagine the information received off your computer through cookies combined with information mined from phone books, voter's lists and warranty cards. USA Today says that's what a company called Acxiom is doing. Some civil rights advocates call this practice "troublesome."
Utah Civil Rights and Liberty Foundation Attorney Brian Barnard says, "It is an invasion of privacy, but it's not an invasion in the traditional sense where you talk about government."
"And, it's not an illegal invasion?" I asked.
"Right," he said. "It's not illegal for a company to put a cookie on your computer."A representative from the Arkansas-based Acxiom wasn't available for comment, but other workers say they are not getting personal information like names and addresses from these cookies. However, Barnard says companies could piece together someone's entire life if they get enough data. "Maybe this week they're using it in a legitimate way. Maybe next week they're going to be using it in a more invasive or more inappropriate way," he says.
Barnard says if that happens, new laws over this kind of information might be needed.
"The fact that something is legal doesn't necessarily make it right. The fact that a business is collecting information from you without you knowing about it and using it for some purpose that you don't know about is troublesome," he says.
Acxiom officials say that's not how they see it. They've been quoted as saying it allows advertisers to do a better job. That could mean, for example, fewer ads for cheap Canadian medicine going to someone who truly is not in the market for it.