A good friend who’s a choir director introduced me to Vienna Teng’s “The Hymn of Acxiom” because it’s creepy, artistic, and amazing. Read the lyrics while you listen, and see if you don’t get chills and possibly a tick or two when the electronic chords morph into dissonance as the lyrics subtly change.
Teng named the song for Acxiom Corporation, a billion dollar company based out of Little Rock, Arkansas. I’d never heard of this company, which is eerie because they know all about me. In a live concert Teng explained the reference thusly:
“I did an internship last summer in which one of my colleagues had access to a database by a company called Acxiom. And it’s a marketing database, and she came into the room with a funny look on her face and she said, ‘I just looked up my husband in this thing. And it knows everything about him.’ She had that sort of like mixture of like normal human being plus data geek kind of thing going on where on the one hand she’s like that’s really creepy, that’s wrong, and then she’s like this data’s so amazing. So the kind of duality of that really struck me, so then I thought, maybe I would try to write a song of comfort and beauty from the point of view of a database.” ~ Vienna Teng [YouTube video; transcription my own]
Someone is gathering every crumb you drop…
According to a PBS special on advertising, Acxiom is “one of the biggest companies you’ve never heard of.” According to the New York Times, “It peers deeper into American life than the F.B.I. or the I.R.S., or those prying digital eyes at Facebook and Google.” It’s likely the best data brokerage service in the world–and all perfectly legal. They use public records and comb the internet for information on people (anything we post on the internet is inherently public). But the more sticky part, in my mind, is that they also collect data from clients–like Wells Fargo, E*Trade, Macy’s, and 47 of the Fortune 100 brands. All those privacy policies we sign without reading or understanding the fine print allows information trading–on you personally with your name attached. And they’ve been collecting for over forty years from census data, tax records, product surveys and customer records supplied by their member companies.
Let our formulas find your soul…
What sets Acxiom above other data mining services is their ability to link up data from various sources and platforms, allowing them to predict behavior. Acxiom was the 2013 “Supplier of the Year” according to MediaPost Magazine. The following comes from their article on Abilitag (pg 21), Acxiom’s newest data-linking technology:
…[Abilitag] is at the core of the new audience OS [operating system] which links personally identifiable data on 700 million consumers captured by big marketers with all the anonymized third-party data collected online.
Mui [Chief Product & Engineering Office for Axiom] estimates the 700 million identifiable consumers in Acxiom’s database represent about half of all the first-party data generated by the Fortune 100 companies. But Acxiom’s OS goes one step further, building its own third-party cookie pool, which Mui says has access to the last 30-days of behavior on more than 1 billion consumers.
It is the ability to link all that data, and to enhance it, that is the core of the OS. How does Acxiom enhance all that data? By linking it to all the other consumer attributes it has gathered and gleaned from the multitude of public records available on consumers, including were[sic] they live, whether they own their home, what their mortgages are, whether they have kids in college, etc.
“For every consumer we have more than 5,000 attributes of customer data,” Mui boasts, noting that by linking the public info with actual purchase data, and attributing it to online browsing behavior, Axciom can actually predict future consumer behaviors.
“We know what your propensity is to buy a handbag. We know what your propensity is to go on vacation or use a loyalty card,” he says.
Now we possess you.
I checked out the company website and found a bizarre thing. You can register with them and find out what they have on you–a portion of it, anyway. This brought on a huge internal debate. I want to know what they have! On the other hand, entering my email address into their database willingly feels like an inverse red pill / blue pill where instead of learning the truth, I’m opting into the Matrix. Or, part of it anyway. It’s information on me and they won’t tell me everything they have. Pardon me if I feel a little like I’m being handed a cookie (while being traced by thousands of them).
There are groups fighting this, but there are a lot of people who believe this is the way of the future and we need to get over it. I have no idea what I think. But I had no idea this existed. Data mining, like what Axciom does, is being exploited by companies to present the right item at the most likely moment for an individual to buy it. As the PBS special above notes, data mining is also being successfully exploited by politicians to send messages they know won’t have wider popular support to niche markets that will be aggressively motivated. (I have no evidence one way or another whether Axciom is working with political parties.) The practice of micro-advertising only to likely clients or voters has become so common it has a name: narrowcasting.
So, Realm, I ask you the same question Tang’s fictional database asks, “Is that wrong?” Is this personalization worth the privacy we relinquish?