A wallet-size wealth of data
- By William Matthews
- Feb 06, 2000
For marketers, ever hungry for scraps of information to identify potential
buyers, a driver's license is a veritable feast.
Besides a name and accurate address — ideal for mailings — it has age
and gender information, a bit of medical data, a ZIP code that can tell
something about a person's income, often a Social Security number and usually
There is a big market for such data. Organizations and individuals
from political fund-raisers to telemarketers will pay for it, and until
recently, most states were happy to sell it, sometimes with phone numbers
and other information included.
In January, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a 1994 law prohibiting
such sales is constitutional. Three states, South Carolina, Wisconsin and
Oklahoma had challenged the 1994 Drivers' Privacy Protection Act.
The ruling was applauded by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who included
legislation in this year's transportation funding bill that required states
to stop selling driver's license data without getting the license holder's
"It is a violation of the public trust for state governments to compel
citizens to reveal their private information and then sell it to outsiders
for profit," Shelby said after the Jan. 12 Supreme Court ruling.
"The department of motor vehicles has a legitimate reason to collect
that information, but it has no legitimate reason to sell it," said Andrew
Shen, a policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Information service and marketing companies could use DMV information
along with other databases in data mining operations to produce detailed
profiles of individuals.
"Once personal information hits the private sector, there are no limits
on what the information can be used for," Shen said. It's often used for
sales. But, "once its starts it's a slippery slope. Who knows where it will
pop up," he said.
Shen and other privacy advocates say the court's ruling and Shelby's
legislation are signs of a growing backlash against improper uses of personal
information in the Information Age. "I am optimistic that growing concern
about privacy will lead to protections to curb it," he said.
But there is also pressure to move in the opposite direction. Data mining
maverick MicroStrategy Inc. is urging the Clinton administration to sell
vast federal databases to private data mining companies.
In the hands of the private sector, MicroStrategy contends, government
data could be used for a wide range of purposes, from developing better
ways to deliver health care to finding better ways to curb crime.