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An Illinois father grieving the loss of his daughter in a car accident found a disturbing piece of junk mail when he went to his mailbox last week.

Mike Seay had received a letter from office-supply company OfficeMax. At first glance, it seemed like the usual computer-generated marketing promotion touting discounted prices. He had been an occasional customer for several years.

Upon closer examination, he noticed the letter had been addressed to, "Mike Seay, Daughter Killed In Car Crash, Or Current Business." His 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, was killed in a car accident along with a friend last year in Antioch, Ill.

Amid a wave of concerns about automotive privacy, how such a tragic piece of personal information made its way from a police report to an office-supply company hawking its products has become the focus of increased scrutiny.

Third-party data companies that collect and sell information about unwitting consumers have become more sophisticated. Both within the automotive sphere and beyond, they're finding ways, such as in Seay's case, to build more comprehensive profiles of individuals by linking data culled from their computers, smart phones, cars and public records.

"I wasn't too shocked by this, although it is kind of horrible," said Adi Kamdar, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that's working to protect privacy rights amid technology advances. "This is a practice that happens pretty much behind the scenes, and consumers don't know these data brokers exist or are contracting to provide marketing materials or more targeted advertising."

Government scrutinizing Big Data brokers

The practices of these data brokers were the focus of hearings conducted by the Federal Trade Commission last month. The FTC has become more aggressive in its enforcement of privacy laws, and David Vladeck, the former director of the agency's Consumer Protection Bureau, told the Wall Street Journal just this week that data brokers are a chief focus of regulators.

"We need to inject some real transparency into the data broker business," he said.

This isn't the first time third parties have used automotive data available in public records for reasons of dubious merit. In the early 1990s, pro-life groups began tracking abortion doctors and patients via public databases of license plates and drivers license numbers. That led Congress to pass the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which limited the scope of information state departments of motor vehicles could provide to third parties.

Many records, such as the names and ages of people killed in car accidents, remain public. Yet it remains unknown how a third-party data company recorded the information on Ashley Seay's death, linked it to a profile kept on her father and then brokered that information.

OfficeMax did not return multiple requests for comment from AOL Autos, and refused to disclose the third-party company it had contracted with for the mailing when reached by other media outlets.

How brokers connect with your car's data

Concern over the intersection of automotive data and privacy rights has been growing in recent weeks and months, although attention has primarily been focused on the data emerging from cars more than public records.

A report issued earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office determined car companies need to do a better job telling consumers how they use this information – and how they might share it with third parties such as data brokers.

Systems that provide features like real-time traffic data and turn-by-turn directions, for example, also collect location data that is collected and stored by automakers for unknown purposes and undetermined lengths of time.

"We know everyone who breaks the law," Ford senior vice president Jim Farley said earlier this month. "We have GPS in your car, so we know what you're doing." After an outcry of criticism, he backpedaled from the statement.

AAA, the nation's largest organization of motorists and a leading advocate for empowering drivers, urged lawmakers last week to ensure that driver data was protected in the wake of the GAO report.

"The data that today can be routinely collected by cars includes some of the most sensitive data that can be collected about a person, including information about their precise location and driving habits," said Bob Darbelnet, AAA's CEO and president.

OfficeMax provides no answers

Seay told the Los Angeles Times that an executive from OfficeMax had called to apologize, but refused to explain how the company had obtained information about the death of his daughter. He and his wife were leaving their home to attend a support group for parents who have lost children when the letter arrived.

The conversation with OfficeMax upset the couple. Seay said his wife grabbed the phone and told the executive, 'You can call me back when you have an answer,' before hanging up.

"Cases like this just go to show the extent to which these third-party companies know about who we are and what we're interested in, and the sort of sensitive information we'd prefer to keep private," Kamdar said.

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 89 Comments
      Plummer, Joseph
      • 1 Year Ago
      ( We know everyone that breaks the Law because we track everyone's car with the GPS we know what you're doing) And if they can do that, and they are an auto manifacturer, guess what the Government is doing..
      alaskafaye
      • 1 Year Ago
      The American people can show outrage, want to impeach their President, and willing to label the unpatriotic act of Snowden as whistleblowing, because they believe the NSA has collected some private data. However, why are they not just as outraged, or just as vocal, over the private information obtained, sold, and leaked by automotive, department stores, identy theft, and through their own carelessness? I cannot believe how much private information is disclosed through public cellphone conversations.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I think that this is a invinsion of privance and I am a former auto worker and never heard of such a thing. This is unbelievable and this country is going BAD ALL AROIUND. We can nothave FAITH IN OUR POLITIONS ANY MORE AND NOW WE ARE LOOSING FAITH IN EVERYBODY NOW
      johngin1999
      • 1 Year Ago
      Oh if we could only use the aged mail term: "Return to sender" Would LOVE to see them get 30 million pieces of mail returned!
      • 1 Year Ago
      After my dad died in 1989, my mom did get the usual calls for him and she explained he was deceased. The calls stopped but has recently started again. So when a call comes in for my dad - she does not get upset, she simply tells the caller he longer resides at that address and can be reached at 1-800-heaven. Then she simply hangs up on the caller.
      stonehand00
      • 1 Year Ago
      What about the IRS under Obama? Using personal information to go after certain groups.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @stonehand00
        Groups that are doing bad things, usually. get over it. I don't break the law or do anything underhanded so I'm not paranoid.
          cashwellrp
          • 1 Year Ago
          I noticed you used the word "usually", so you do acknowledge the fact that "groups" have been added to the "go after" list that are not doing anything illegal, they are just not liked by the current administration.
          dennismlns
          • 1 Year Ago
          But it's people like YOU that the IRS is watching, Remember Snowden?!?
      codenamesparrow
      • 1 Year Ago
      My grandma would get junk mail for her deceased husband 10 years after he died . So this is not new, But the killed in crash on the letter is crazy.
      T Rock
      • 1 Year Ago
      Thats what happens when you type your life into a computer database - Keep updating your status on farcebunk and twatter so everything you type or text is recorded forever. Think beyond your nose
        M
        • 1 Year Ago
        @T Rock
        TNSTAAFL (There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). Google is one of the companies that has acknowleged they collect info from the actual emails of the GMAIL ("free") accounts. Apparentlly YAHOO has refused to answer questions about that...
      Tomkool
      • 1 Year Ago
      I still get calls and letters for my mom its been 5 years
      • 1 Year Ago
      How in the world can the government scrutinize any company for collecting data?? They are the biggest "Big Business" in the world in collecting data!!
      • 1 Year Ago
      I hate all forced advertising. I used to enjoy internet news more until all the sites now have almost a third of their stories in video format so they can force you to watch an ad...which when they do I immediately turn it off and miss the story. When a television program on cable (Remember when you had the choice commercials OR pay for cable) subjects me to the same commercial ten times a show I make a mental not to never use thier products. If I ever meet someone socially that says they are in advertising I admonish them>
        posthuf
        • 1 Year Ago
        I keep pen and paper next to my computer and every time I open an aol page to read an article if it opens with an ad I make a note of the product. I will not be shopping in that store or buying that product. There are more than enough alternatives.
          flbob
          • 1 Year Ago
          @posthuf
          Oh please. Do you expect us to believe that?
        dennismlns
        • 1 Year Ago
        You have the wrong conception of people in advertising, they MAKE the ad, they DO NOT decide where or how often they are played. My job is considered advertising, all I do is greeting cards, how many commercials do you see for that?
      • 1 Year Ago
      My dad was scheduled for open heart surgery and a solicitor called to plan his funeral. It's AWFUL and shameful that it can infiltrate a hospital system. My dad had a very serious conversation with the individual and said their information was obtained from a staffer at the hospital in regards to the ICU wing patients. Disgusting.
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