In a public hearing, a Congressman weighed in on an advertiser who unwittingly let a woman’s family know she was pregnant, a database being sold with records on millions of federal employees, creepily tailor-made ads aimed at consumers based on past purchases, and a questionnaire misleadingly used to gather ad targeting data.
The year was 1970, but the concerns raised about marketing mailing lists and the data brokers who trafficked in them in the House Subcommittee on Postal Operations nearly 50 years ago were notably similar to those now aired about online advertising.
“The direct mail industry knows almost everything about each of us, but what do we know about direct mailers and their spearhead, mailing list brokers?” asked Cornelius Gallagher, a New Jersey Democrat. “I suggest we know far too little about them, and I further suggest that they know far too much about all the American people.”
Among the still-familiar concerns Gallagher and others raised in the hearing:
- A “solicitation for a diaper service” informed a woman’s husband she was pregnant, after a medical lab sold the woman’s name, Gallagher told the subcommittee. While that would likely be illegal under today’s medical privacy laws, the story evokes a widely circulated 2012 report in The New York Times that revealed a high school student’s father first learned of her pregnancy after Target sent her a mailer for pregnancy-related items.
- Many companies drew a distinction between selling customer data and sending third-party ads based on data they kept private (usually by physically mailing messages on behalf of advertisers), although consumers and regulators didn’t always see the distinction. Today, tech companies similarly often insist they “don’t sell any data,” as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress last year, although they do openly use it to target ads to consumers.
- A marketing company reportedly sent out a questionnaire to gather data for advertising purposes without telling consumers that’s how it would be used, Gallagher said. More recently, in the run-up to the 2016 election, a University of Cambridge psychology lecturer with ties to the firm Cambridge Analytica used a pop psych quiz as a means to collect data on millions of Facebook users.
- Out-and-out data breaches aren’t new, and they’ve long been worrisome for privacy-minded people: Gallagher told the subcommittee that the Encyclopedia Brittanica sued a set of former employees for selling unauthorized copies of its customer list, and hotel employees were reportedly bribed to give over guest lists from charity dinners.
- Then as now, ad targeting methods could lead, intentionally or not, to racial discrimination. List brokers enabled mailers to target households by census tract, including based on racial and other demographic data about the areas. “As it turns out, one of the minor disadvantages of being a Negro slum dweller in the United States is being deprived of a fair shore of orange-juice coupons,” wrote Calvin Trillin in a 1966 New Yorker piece about the mailing industry that was entered into the Congressional hearing records.
- A major concern in 1970 was unsolicited mailings advertising pornography, with mailing lists from computer dating services and even the American Medical Association member list apparently bought and used by porn vendors. Most big online ad networks restrict or simply ban ads for porn sites and other sexual content, although it’s still a constant theme of email spam and unsolicited messages on various texting apps.
- Ads that seemed creepily over-targeted existed long before the web: “No person’s name is safe,” lamented Rep. Ken Hechler, a West Virginia Democrat. “Nobody’s privacy is respected by the list peddlers. Your name is sold, traded, and peddled from the day you are born until long after death, because if you die, your spouse immediately goes onto a mailing list for tombstones, memorials, and how to live alone and like it [sic] schemes.”
- A Washington, D.C., firm apparently offered “computer tapes” with data on 3,000,000 federal employees, Gallagher said. Decades later, the federal Office of Personnel Management revealed that data on millions of federal employees and job applicants had been stolen in a data breach. Officials also frequently warn of scams targeting government workers, including some offering bogus temp jobs during this year’s government shutdown and ones aimed at military members and veterans.