Consumers won access to their credit scores more than a decade ago, after advocates voiced concerns over errors and lending bias.
But most people remain in the dark about hundreds of other data-collection programs still being used to size up consumers and market to them. The secret scores and data are used by employers, utilities, banks, health care providers, debt collectors and a host of other enterprises.
Consumers have no way to review them or correct factual errors, say advocates of consumer access to the reports. They argue that the consumer protections applying to credit reports need to be extended to all consumer scores — particularly when they are used for identity checks, fraud prevention, medical histories and profitability predictions.
"What's to keep the data storers from just making things up?" said University of Maryland law professor Frank Pasquale, whose book, The Black Box Society: Technologies of Search, Reputation, and Finance, will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.
"Or cooking the algorithm to increase their profitability, regardless of the underlying data?" Pasquale said. "How are we to be sure some malcontent isn't just messing with people's scores?"
A recent Federal Trade Commission hearing examined how the data collection programs can touch on highly personal matters: scores to predict whether individuals would take their medications; whether consumers are likely to pay a debt if contacted by phone or mail; the degree of a person's influence over others on the Internet; whether a customer is pregnant, and if so, when the baby is due.
Some of the scores are used to screen for fraud or to determine whether to grant or deny consumers' requests for goods and services. But defenders of the practices say most of the data crunching simply helps match consumers to goods and services they want.
The Direct Marketing Association, a trade group for data brokers, has calculated that the industry generates $156 billion in annual revenue, 70 percent of it involving companies sharing their records on consumers and groups of individuals with other enterprises. The brokers' computer programs, which crunch data from public records and private databases, can involve hundreds and even thousands of factors, experts say, acknowledging that the complexities can appear threatening.
"We realize we have to act responsibly to have consumers' trust," said Rachel Thomas, a Direct Marketing Association spokeswoman, saying consumers have little cause for worry.
But privacy advocates say these self-imposed protections are inadequate. There's no way to tell, they say, whether the marketing data are used to deny consumers a product or service based on, for instance, the neighborhood where they live.
"These scores offer predictions that can become consumers' destiny, whether they are right or wrong," said Pam Dixon, director of the San Diego nonprofit World Privacy Forum, which issued a report recently calling on Congress and federal regulators to lift the veil on the enormous but little-known data broker industry.
The solution, the critics say, would be for the industry to open its books. Regulators and consumers should be able to see the data to judge whether scores are being used improperly as proxies for such things as race or sex, or disclosing private information about consumers without their knowledge.