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Thursday, April 06, 2006

What's Your Name and Private (or Public) Information Worth?

As a junk mail shopper, your name could be worth around $65 to you personally on an annual basis. More or less, depending on how many times you buy. The total take each year on consumers’ names and personal data is $4 billion from junk mailers, a part of their business they would rather you know very little about. With each purchase, you have the option to check that you do not wish your name “shared” with other junk mail companies. They will never tell you that your name and private information is sold, over and over and over.

So you don’t think the $65 is enough to worry about? Then let’s put just half of that $4 billion every year in a simple interest-bearing account until you are age 65. Bingo! Retirees could supplement their retirement income with an average of $607 monthly; again, more or less, based on buying habits. Sound better? It could happen if Congress got off their duff and passed federal legislation giving you control over this data.

And that’s only the junk mailers. Your private and public information is being sold by thousands of data brokers other than ChoicePoint and LexisNexis. The SWIPE Toolkit knows this, and has come up with a great site that shows you just how much you are worth. Go to their calculator and you’ll be blown away by what you see. Click “Data Calculator” first, then, “Launch” on the left and you’re on your way.

Trying it myself, I selected address, date of birth, unpublished phone number, Social Security number, credit records, driver’s license info, and voter registration. Total: $40.25. And, that’s only one report out of thousands that are sold daily. I found the SWIPE Toolkit in a article by Jeanne Sahadi, “You want a piece of me? Pay me.” She is saying what I have been saying for the last several years, that the name-holder should have control over their name and personal data, and be compensated when it is sold.

Sahadi asked Chris Hoofnagle, “who owns this private information.” Hoofnagle, Director of the West Coast Office and Senior Counsel for Electronic Privacy Information Center, replied: “Whoever possesses it.” The EPIC has been fighting vigorously for years to protect your privacy, so you can understand the frustration in this statement.

And yet another new entry into the private information marketplace, reported by Washington Post columnist, Don Oldenburg, in his article, “Everything You Ever Knew About Yourself—for $79.95.” The company is MyPublicInfo Inc., founded in 2004 to provide personal data retrieval services for consumers. I went to and clicked on “Sample” to see what they offer. Folks, it comes out to a list numbering fifteen pages of public and personal data items about your present-day status, as well as your past.

But, you have to give up your name, address, Social Security number, and birth date to get the report. This is the same stuff an ID thief needs to walk away with your identity. They also claim no one else can get your report—the $79.95 charged should be your best protection—and the safeguards look pretty secure. However, their database is out-sourced—there’s that word again—to a firm in California.

Oldenburg quotes Beth Givens, Founder and Director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse as saying that access ought to be “free of charge, just like they can get their credit reports for free.” I agree, and the way to solve the whole problem is to pass federal legislation that will give consumers control over their names and private information and, at the same time, pay them when it is sold.

There, I said it again.

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