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 firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.