Data Compilers’ Secret Scores Peg Consumers

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, healthcare 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 Assn., a trade group for...

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