There is a digital data “gold rush” fever sweeping the data and marketing industry, as the quest to find ways to use data to determine a person’s “identity” for online marketing becomes paramount. This is triggered, in part, by the moves made by Google and others to replace “cookies” and other online identifiers with new, allegedly pro-privacy data-profiling methods to get the same results. We’ve addressed this privacy charade in other posts. In order to better position themselves in a world where knowing who we are and what we do is a highly valuable global currency, there are an increasing number of mergers and acquisitions in the digital marketing and advertising sector.
For example, last week data-broker giant TransUnion announced it is buying identity data company Neustar for $3.1 billion dollars, to further expand its “powerful digital identity capabilities.” This is the latest in TransUnion’s buying spree to acquire data services companies that give it even more information on the U.S. public, including what we do on streaming media, via its 2020 takeovers of connected and streaming video data company Tru Optik (link is external) and the data-management-focused Signal. (link is external)
In reviewing some of the business practices touted by TransUnion and Neustar, it’s striking that so little has changed in the decades CDD has been sounding the alarm about the impacts data-driven online marketing services have on society. These include the ever-growing privacy threats, as well as the machine-driven sorting of people and the manipulation of our behaviors. So far, nothing has derailed the commercial Big Data marketing.
With this deal, TransUnion is obtaining a treasure trove of data assets and capabilities. For Neustar, “identity is an actionable understanding of who or what is on the other end of every interaction and transaction.” Neustar’s “OneID system provides a single lens on the consumer across their dynamic omnichannel journey.” This involves: (link is external) data management services featuring the collection, identification, tagging, tracking, analyzing, verification, correcting and sorting of business data pertaining to the identities, locations and personal information of and about consumers, including individuals, households, places, businesses, business entities, organizations, enterprises, schools, governments, points of interest, business practice characteristics, movements and behaviors of and about consumers via media devices, computers, mobile phones, tablets and internet connected devices.
Neustar keeps close track of people, saying that it knows that “the average person has approximately 15 distinct identifiers with an average of 8 connected devices” (and notes that an average household has more than 45 such distinct identifiers). Neustar has an especially close business partnership with Facebook, (link is external) which enables marketers to better analyze how their ads translate into sales made on and spurred by that platform. Its “Customer Scoring and Segmentation” system enables advertisers to identify and classify targets so they can “reach the right customer with the right message in the right markets.” Neustar has a robust data-driven ad-targeting system called AdAdvisor, which reaches 220 million adults in “virtually every household in the U.S.” AdAdvisor (link is external) “uses past behavior to predict likelihood of future behavior” and involves “thousands of data points available for online targeting” (including the use of “2 billion records a month from authoritative offline sources”). Its “Propensity Audiences” service helps marketers predict the behaviors of people, incorporating such information (link is external) as “customer-level purchase data for more than 230 million US consumers; weekly in-store transaction data from over 4,500 retailers; actual catalog purchases by more than 18 million households”; and “credit information and household-level demographics, used to build profiles of the buying power, disposable income and access to credit a given household has available.” Neustar offers its customers the ability to reach “propensity audiences” in order to target such product categories as alcohol, automotive, education, entertainment, grocery, life events, personal finance, and more. For example, companies can target people who have used their debit or credit cards, by the amount of insurance they have on their homes or cars, by the “level of investable assets,” including whether they have a pension or other retirement funds. One also can discover people who buy a certain kitty litter or candy bar—the list of AdAdvisor possibilities is far-reaching.
Another AdAdvisor application, “ElementOne,” (link is external) comprises 172 segments that can be “leveraged in real time for both online and offline audience targeting.” The targeting categories should be familiar to anyone who is concerned about how groups of people are characterized by data-brokers and others. For example, one can select “Segment 058—high income rural younger renters with and without children—or “Segment 115—middle income city older home owners without children; or any Segment from 151-172 to reach “low income” Americans who are renters, homeowners, have or don’t have kids, live in rural or urban areas, and the like.
Marketers can also use AdAdvisor to determine the geolocation behaviors of their targets, through partnerships that provide Neustar with “10 billion daily location signals from 250+ million opted-in consumers.” In other words, Neustar knows whether you walked into that liquor store, grocery chain, hotel, entertainment venue, or shop. It also has data on what you view on TV, streaming video, and gaming. And it’s not just consumers who Neustar tracks and targets. Companies can access its “HealthLink Dimensions Doctor Data to target 1.7 million healthcare professionals who work in more than 400 specialties, including acute care, family practice, pediatrics, cardiovascular surgery.”
TransUnion is already a global data and digital marketing powerhouse, with operations in 30 countries, 8,000 clients that include 60 of the Fortune 100. What is calls its “TruAudience Marketing Solutions (link is external)” is built on a foundation of “insight into 98% of U.S. adults and more than 127 million homes, including 80 million connected homes.” Its “TruAudience Identity” product provides “a three-dimensional, omnichannel view of individuals, devices and households… [enabling] precise, scalable identity across offline, digital and streaming environments.” It offers marketers and others a method to secure what it terms is an “identity resolution,” (link is external) which is defined as “the process of matching identifiers across devices and touchpoints to a single profile [that] helps build a cohesive, omnichannel view of a consumer….”
TransUnion, known historically as one of the Big Three credit bureaus, has pivoted to become a key source for data and applications for digital marketing. It isn’t the only company expanding what is called an “ID Graf (link is external)”—the ways all our data are gathered for profiling. However, given its already vast storehouse of information on Americans, it should not be allowed to devour another major data-focused marketing enterprise.
Since this merger is now before the U.S. Department of Justice—as opposed to the Federal Trade Commission—there isn’t a strong likelihood that in addition to examining the competitive implications of the deal, there will also be a focus on what this really means for people, in terms of further loss of privacy, their autonomy and their potential vulnerability to manipulative and stealthy marketing applications that classify and segment us in a myriad of invisible ways. Additionally, the use of such data systems to identify communities of color and other groups that confront historic and current obstacles to their well-being should also be analyzed by any competition regulator.
In July, the Biden Administration issued (link is external) an Executive Order on competition that called for a more robust regime to deal with mergers such as TransUnion and Neustar. According to that order, “It is also the policy of my Administration to enforce the antitrust laws to meet the challenges posed by new industries and technologies, including the rise of the dominant Internet platforms, especially as they stem from serial mergers, the acquisition of nascent competitors, the aggregation of data, unfair competition in attention markets, the surveillance of users, and the presence of network effects.”
We hope the DOJ will live up to this call to address mergers such as this one, and other data-driven deals that are a key reason why these kind of buyouts happen with regularity. There should also be a way for the FTC—especially under the leadership of Chair Lina Khan—to play an important role evaluating this and similar transactions. There’s more at stake than competition in the data-broker or digital advertising markets. Who controls our information and how that information is used are the fundamental questions that will determine our freedom and our economic opportunities. As the Big Data marketplace undergoes a key transition, developing effective policies to protect public privacy and corporate competition is precisely why this moment is so vitally important.