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How You're Treated When You Shop Online Depends on Your Secret Score

by Stewart Wolpin on November 09, 2019

Are you paranoid, frustrated, angry, or scared about how much "the net" knows about you and your online activities? Those fears may be justified. It seems there is a "deep state" cluster of companies you've likely never heard of that collect, compile, and analyze your online commerce activities and interactions – what you've bought from where and who and on which device, who and how you've corresponded with or complained to about purchases or services, etc.

Perhaps more frightening, many of these companies not only collect and AI analyze these often intimate interactions, but they sell this data to clients. You're assigned a "score," something like a credit rating or an Uber rating that impacts how commerce companies treat you online, or even whether you can get a job. Unlike a credit score, however, there's no one to protest to if you don't like your online activity score – assuming you could even access it.

According to a recent New York Times story, these are not new endeavors; many of these shadowy data collection outfits have been around nearly 10 years. A June report from the Consumer Education Foundation exposed what it calls "secret surveillance scoring." It found 11 companies that collect, package, rate, and often sell our online commerce data to the companies that then use this data to decide how to conduct business with us. The Consumer Education Found has petitioned the FTC to investigate.

These companies often explain that this data helps e-commerce sites detect fraud and abuse, and help commerce sites improve service both broadly and individually. While few question the legitimacy, utility or even necessity of these services, what concerns privacy watchdogs is whether or not these companies can keep your data, the way they collect it, what they do with it, and if you can see it, secret.

These commerce data collection companies include:

After these companies collect your online activity details, "euphemistically referred to as 'data analytics'," according to the Consumer Education Foundation report, "the firms’ engineers write software algorithms that instruct computers to parse a person’s data trail and develop a digital 'mug shot.' Eventually, that individual profile is reduced to a number – the score – and transmitted to corporate clients looking for ways to take advantage of, or even avoid, the consumer. The scoring system is automatic and instantaneous. None of this is disclosed to the consumer: the existence of the algorithm, the application of the Surveillance Score or even that they have become the victim of a technological scheme that just a few years ago would appear only in a dystopian science fiction novel."

We reported on this type of analytics back in 2018. Best Buy was using The Retail Equation to analyze consumer return behavoir and ban individuals from making returns. 

While the Times reporter was able to retrieve his shockingly bulky file from one of these companies, he failed with most of the others.

Fortunately, this secret surveillance could soon be coming to an end. Last year, the European Union started to fiercely enforce its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a wide set of rules and regulations designed to protect consumer online privacy, and allows consumer access to data collected about themselves. (That pop-up window you get when you first visit a web site asking if you accept their collection of cookies is just one outgrowth of these regulations.)

Similarly, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), set to go into effect New Year's Day 2020, while not as expansive as the GDRP, also empowers consumers with more control over their own online privacy, including knowing what kind of data these secret surveillance scoring companies are collecting about you. Since California is the country's largest state and economy, it's likely most data collection outfits will comply with its privacy piercing provisions.

Once you manage to score a copy of your score, it's an open question whether you can do anything to impact the collection itself or the results – assuming you want to know to begin with.

[Image credit: customer star rating concpet via BigStockPhoto]


News, Blog, Shopping, Privacy

Discussion loading


From Linda A Graham on November 13, 2019 :: 2:13 pm

Gee whiz; last time I looked, California is NOT the largest state in this nation.  Have you ever looked at Alaska and Texas???



From Josh Kirschner on November 13, 2019 :: 3:25 pm

We thought it was pretty obvious in this context that we were referring to largest by population, not landmass. This is a story about protecting consumers, not acreage.



From Angie on November 13, 2019 :: 5:12 pm

Thank you for this information. How can we find out our “score”?



From Josh Kirschner on November 13, 2019 :: 9:43 pm

None of these companies are consumer-facing, and none that I researched provided an easy or obvious way to request access to your data. Generally, your best best is to look under each site’s “Legal” or “Privacy policy” section in the bottom footer. You can often find a contact email in there to request access to your data. Note that while residents of the European Union should be able to request this information, by law, under GDPR, the company is likely under no obligation to provide it to those in the US or other jurisdictions - but you can always ask.



From Sybil L King on November 14, 2019 :: 10:46 am

I bought a car in 2018 and since then I’m bombarded with phone calls and mail claiming my extended warranty is cancelled they want to discuss selling me a new one. All are RIP off scams. The dealership says they are not affiliated with them. And my extended warranty company says we are good.

They say that the state tag agency records of phone number and my home address is open to public.

That is disturbing.



From Linda A Graham on November 14, 2019 :: 11:04 am

I co-signed on a loan for a car back in 2007.  The registration was never in my name.  The car was a 2003 model and sold by its owner in 2018 yet I’m the one getting all the “extend your warranty” crap phone calls.  You’d think a car that was 16 years old was LONG out of warranty.  LOL



From Stewart Wolpin on November 14, 2019 :: 3:11 pm

I don’t think these calls have any connection to any actual car transaction you may have made or these secret score collectors. I haven’t owned a car in 35 years, and yet I also am bombarded with “your car insurance is about to lapse” and “extend your warranty” calls. My guess is that these spammers simply sequentially call blank phone numbers with the assumption that everyone owns a car with insurance, and that eventually they’ll actually hit someone gullible enough and in the situation to which their scheme applies.


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