What Some Companies Are Doing with Your ‘Secret’ Consumer Score

When you send messages to an Airbnb host or order food through Yelp, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about where else that information goes – or who it goes to. But some companies are using that data to make judgments about consumers or detect potential fraud, according to a recent New York Times article.

When Times reporter Kashmir Hill requested her consumer data gathered by Sift, a company that analyzes data from clients like Airbnb, the ticket service SeatGeek and online dating site Zoosk, she was surprised to find a report of more than 400 pages that included messages she’d sent to Airbnb hosts, log-ins on a digital currency app and a list of Yelp food delivery orders.

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In an age in which data has been likened to “the new oil,” Blase Ur, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Chicago, said these lesser-known companies serve a variety of purposes.

“Typically, you do business with lots of companies and you realize you’re doing business with them,” Ur said. “But there are a bunch of other companies – companies you’ve never heard of – who are then basically working with companies like Airbnb to do fraud detection and also to do some consumer profiling.”

Ur says it’s less clear whether these companies listed by the Times, which include Zeta Global, Retail Equation, Riskified and Kustomer, limit this data to the client that originally collected it.

“One of the problems is that this is all happening in the shadows, so we don’t really know what’s going on,” Ur said. “So maybe they won’t give Uber your Airbnb messages, but if they make some determination about you, that you’re an unreliable person, perhaps they could then send that to Uber.”

Some governments are passing laws to protect data and promote more transparency within these industries. 

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect in May 2018, gives EU citizens the right to obtain their personal data from companies that collect it and holds those businesses to high standards of privacy in maintaining the information.

In the U.S., the California Consumer Privacy Act, which takes effect Jan. 1, will allow California residents to opt out of having their data sold to other companies and provide reasonable means for requesting their data.

Ur said that state law could benefit all Americans, although it’s up to the company collecting data.

“A lot of companies rather than trying to deal with who is actually entitled to which right based on where they are, are extending this everywhere,” Ur said.

Ur joins us to discuss this lesser-known consumer rating industry.

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