It's difficult to tell just how much personal information companies have picked up about us from our online trails, our smartphone and app activity, and our credit card purchases. Sure, certain sites and apps offer ways for users to see their activity data on their platforms, but going to each one individually is not convenient, to say the least. Plus, there are many companies — so called "data brokers" — that specialize in collecting and piecing together personal data about people in the background, without broadly disclosing that fact. Now one US government official is proposing a sweeping new initiative that would let people see all the data that such companies have collected about them. Called "Reclaim Your Name," the effort is still just a proposal for now, but it will become reality in the coming months if its creator, Julie Brill, a commissioner with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has her way.

'We will analyze your purchases to predict what health conditions you have."

In her keynote address today at the Computers Freedom and Privacy Conference in Washington, DC, Brill cited some examples of the kind of broad data collection that many companies engage in without explicitly informing consumers, including a notorious incident in which the retail chain Target accidentally revealed a teen girl's pregnancy to her parents by crawling purchase data. As Brill put it in her speech: "Imagine walking into Target and reading a sign on the wall or a disclosure on a receipt that says: 'We will analyze your purchases to predict what health conditions you have so that we can provide you with discounts and coupons you may want.' That clear statement would surprise – and alarm – most of us."

Brill's proposed solution to this seemingly alarming collection of personal data without consumers' explicit awareness or consent is a proposed initiative she calls "Reclaim Your Name." Here's how she described it in her speech:

Reclaim Your Name would empower the consumer to find out how brokers are collecting and using data; give her access to information that data brokers have amassed about her; allow her to opt-out if she learns a data broker is selling her information for marketing purposes; and provide her the opportunity to correct errors in information used for substantive decisions – like credit, insurance, employment, and other benefits.

Brill, who has challenged companies on consumer privacy before, said she discussed the prospect with others in industry, and that "they have expressed some interest," but that she hoped the entire industry would sign on. The FTC has previously taken a hard line on data brokers, so there's a good chance this plan will come into effect in some form. Still, the fine details of how such a system would work in practice — would consumers visit the FTC website? Individual websites? What format would their data be available in? Would the program be mandated or voluntary? — have yet to be determined. Brill said that she would be working with the industry over the coming months to refine the proposal. She will also need to convince the other four FTC commissioners, including newcomer Terrell McSweeny, to get on board with her plan as well. Going off the broad outlines Brill provided, the proposal is a reassuring one for the direction of the FTC, which has been criticized in the past for not taking a harder stance on companies when it comes to consumer privacy.