In the wake of Europe's new privacy laws, I polled numerous companies to learn what they knew about me. One of them was Acxiom, a principally American marketing-data agency that collects data on individuals across the globe. Data that it has bought, or gathered, is algorithmically mashed together with public records and drained through a series of statistical models. The eventual aim of this effort is to create a series of conclusions about user behavior that can be used to create increasingly targeted advertising.
Acxiom sent me a 24-page file that covered everything it had about me. That information has been sold to a number of "respected brands," including major names like Ford Motor Company, British Telecom and (British retailer) Tesco. The file was also passed on to companies that already know me pretty damn well: Facebook, eBay, Twitter and PayPal.
I'm sure that at some point in the past, I've unwittingly ticked "agree" on some box and given my consent for my data to be collected. And these companies are likely to have tried to build a complete profile of my health, economic status and purchasing profile. It's quite possible that the data has been used to send me specific offers, suggest products I should buy and even dangle discounts in front of my face.
That's a real problem, because the data they store on me is total bollocks.
How big tech manages your personal information
Here's the real me: I'm a 33-year-old technology journalist who is married and owns his own home -- at least if you think having a 35-year mortgage qualifies as "ownership." I have one daughter who is now a few years old and a newborn son. I drive a third- or fourth-hand, petrol-powered Lexus from the year 2000, making my car old enough to vote.
Maybe it's egomania, but because I'm on the internet as much as I am and also because I have a semi-prominent job, I assumed these companies would know a lot about me. Like, I'm on Facebook and Twitter pretty much nonstop, and I spend 10 or 12 hours per day on the internet. How can I not be the most open book to these people?
The Acxiom version of Dan Cooper has the same address as me, but he's 25, not 33, and he's cohabiting rather than married. Well, according to the documents, there's a 37.2 percent chance he's cohabiting and a 37.1 percent chance he's hitched. The data also shows that he's an "empty nester," meaning that his kids have grown up and moved out, which is just about plausible if he fathered his first child at seven.
Acxiom's data contradicts itself on a number of occasions, thanks to the weird, algorithmic way it was gathered. He's childless, but at the same time his kids were born in 1983 and 1986 -- clearly this alterna-Cooper blossomed early. He also somehow managed to buy a home in 1993, aged 11, which he mortgaged as a second-time buyer. I mean, I have to admit, this guy clearly has his life and priorities sorted out.
All of that time spent having kids while still in school and buying a house has, unfortunately, had a domino effect on his career. Acxiom's statistical models think that he's an employed individual (85.4 percent) working inside the socio-economic grade C2/D. That means he's either a skilled or unskilled manual laborer. The data also isn't clear about his politics: He either reads the reactionary, right-wing rag Daily Express or the center-left Guardian.