Rockefeller Expands Investigation on Consumer Data Brokers

Senate chairman mails 12 websites requesting privacy information.

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Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa.) is leading a consumer data investigation requiring 12 websites to explain their privacy policies to the Senate.

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It's getting easier for websites to collect and sell information about consumers, so Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-WVa., announced Wednesday he is expanding his investigation to discover the extent and practices of data brokers.

Rockefeller sent letters to 12 websites focused on personal finance, health, and family issues, asking them to explain their privacy policies, including whether they share consumer data with third parties. The senator requested these websites to answer those questions by Oct. 11.

[READ: GAO Reviewing CFPB’s Use of 5 Million Americans Financial Records]

"It is difficult to determine from the face of any company's privacy policy how the company actually uses and shares consumer information it gathers - or specifically how it limits any such sharing," Rockefeller said in the letters. "Transparency regarding website information is increasingly important as greater numbers of consumers turn to the Internet for advice and information."

Websites that received letters from Rockefeller included health and wellness online magazine Self.com, which is owned by Conde Nast.

"At Conde Nast, our relationships with consumers are paramount and we take their privacy very seriously," Conde Nast says in a statement.. "We've received the committee's inquiry seeking more information about third party data collection and management, and will be answering it shortly."

Rockefeller's office began investigating data brokers in October 2012, and the responses from nine data broker companies that he contacted showed that some websites share consumer information gathered by Web surveys, sweepstakes, and questionnaires.

[MORE: Government Targets 5 Million Americans For Warrantless Financial Surveillance Watchdog Says]

"Respondent companies have told the committee they obtain information from consumer-facing websites," Rockefeller said in the letter about his investigation in Oct. 2012. "One respondent estimated the 'there are 250,000 websites [that] state in their privacy policy that they share data with other companies.'"

Comprehensive regulation of data brokers is needed either through legislation in Congress or through actions by the Federal Trade Commission, which is also investigating consumer privacy, says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center advocacy group.

"The data broker industry has both grown and consolidated in recent years with the formation of large firms that create vast profiles of consumers using online data collection," Rotenberg says. "Senator Rockefeller's efforts are a good step, but more needs to be done."

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