Lawmakers call for FTC investigation of data brokers enabled by online ad industry

“[T]here is no effective way to control these tools absent intervention by regulators and Congress,” the lawmakers said of data brokers.
FTC building (John Taylor/Flickr)

A group of 10 U.S. lawmakers on Friday asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate companies that sell Americans’ personal data by exploiting online advertising, calling for any lawbreaking firms to be shut down.

The lawmakers, including Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., decried the data-selling practices as an “outrageous privacy violation,” citing reports that Mobilewalla, a data broker, compiled data from Black Lives Matter protestors for marketing purposes. The broader market for consumers’ personal data is lucrative, and includes a bidding process for online ads that include code for gobbling up information on users’ locations and personal devices.

The lawmakers want the FTC to use its investigative power to determine if data brokers have broken a federal law that prohibits “unfair and deceptive” business practices. An FTC spokesperson declined to comment.

“[T]here is no effective way to control these tools absent intervention by regulators and Congress,” the lawmakers wrote to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons. “Technological roadblocks, such as browser privacy settings and ad blockers, are routinely circumvented by advertising companies.”


Other signatories of the letter included Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Maria Cantwell of Washington, and Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Democratic Reps. Yvette Clarke of New York and Anna Eshoo, Ro Khanna and Zoe Lofgren of California also signed the letter.

The security practices of database and marketing firms have also come into question over the years. Acxiom, a big database company, was hacked in 2003, reportedly compromising 1.6 billion records. Marketing firm Epsilon was breached in 2011, exposing email addresses held by the firm to phishing and fraud.

The full letter to the FTC is below.

Sean Lyngaas

Written by Sean Lyngaas

Sean Lyngaas is CyberScoop’s Senior Reporter covering the Department of Homeland Security and Congress. He was previously a freelance journalist in West Africa, where he covered everything from a presidential election in Ghana to military mutinies in Ivory Coast for The New York Times. Lyngaas’ reporting also has appeared in The Washington Post, The Economist and the BBC, among other outlets. His investigation of cybersecurity issues in the nuclear sector, backed by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, won plaudits from industrial security experts. He was previously a reporter with Federal Computer Week and, before that, with Smart Grid Today. Sean earned a B.A. in public policy from Duke University and an M.A. in International Relations from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Latest Podcasts