What Are Our Scores?

It’s no surprise that retailers are searching to find potential customers all the time, enticing the profitable ones, avoiding the deadbeats. But most of us are unaware of how relentlessly and extensively we are being watched and evaluated as consumers – and how dangerous our ignorance of that practice can be.

Over 400 companies are in the business of compiling consumer data, scoring us, ranking us, and arranging us in list. And we usually never know.

For example, we have “e-scores,” ranking our value as internet customers, and “churn scores” that predict loyalty to our phone carriers or cable companies? There are job security scores that evaluate our risk of unemployment, affecting our ability to pay back loans. There are even charitable donor scores that foundations use to assess the likelihood of our giving large gifts.

The World Privacy Forum recently published a report, “The Scoring of America,” alerting us to the widespread practice and it dangers: “Consumer scores with secret factors, secret sources, and secret algorithms can be obnoxious, unaccountable, untrustworthy, and unauditable.” More: “Secret scores can be wrong, but no one may be able to find out that they are wrong or what the truth is,” adding that they “can hide discrimination, unfairness, and bias.”

According to the report, such scores are largely “unregulated either by the Fair Credit Reporting Act or the Equal Credit Opportunity Act,” arousing “issues of secrecy, fairness of underlying factors, use of consumer information such as race and ethnicity in predictive scores, accuracy, and the uptake in both use and ubiquity of these scores.”

Unnerving as this can be, the major problem is their secrecy. There is no way for the average consumer to find out their e-scores or their frailty scores or any of the ways they are being judged. That means, of course, no way to correct mistakes or protest unfair or biased judgments.

Not until 2000 did the ubiquity of credit scores become widely known, though banks and credit agencies were using them to evaluate us for years, approving and denying applications for credit for what often seemed – and sometimes was — arbitrary reasons. The revelation of those credit scores – along with stories of frequent abuses — eventually led to government regulation, and that now means greater reliability as well as transparency.

Frank Pasquale, whose book The Black Box Society is being published by Harvard, notes how lists are being compiled as well as scores: “lists of victims of sexual assault, and lists of people with sexually transmitted diseases. Lists of people who have Alzheimer’s, dementia and AIDS. Lists of the impotent and the depressed. There are lists of ‘impulse buyers.’ Lists of suckers. . . And lists of those deemed commercially undesirable because they live in or near trailer parks or nursing homes. Not to mention lists of people who have been accused of wrongdoing, even if they were not charged or convicted.” Just a few dollars a name, but there is no way to assess their accuracy or even to find out what lists you may be on.

We may not know our scores or exactly what lists we are on, but I think we all sense that it is not just the NSA that knows all about us. Our email accounts are regularly hacked, credit cards stolen, passwords copied.

There is no privacy and no more secrets.