Corporate Snooping and the Building of Information Networks in the Twentieth-Century United States

Rachel Bunker

In 1973, Nationwide Insurance Co. revoked the automobile insurance policy of Susan Young, a blue-collar worker from West Virginia. Her policy was cancelled thanks to information collected about her by the Retail Credit Co., and later sold to Nationwide. Young’s difficulty in acquiring insurance reflected the complex network of consumer information exchange that developed between credit firms and insurance companies in the twentieth century. Retail Credit, renamed Equifax in 1976, instituted practices of “corporate snooping” to source the information needed to feed these networks and calculate consumer’s individuated risk This paper analyzes the factors that gave authority to these networks of exchange, particularly in moments of disputes with consumers such as Susan Young. In the twentieth century, insurance companies justified practices of risk calculation by framing their methods as scientific, precise, and objective. Retail Credit mirrored this language characterizing their own process of snooping on consumers as highly systematic, standardized, and trustworthy. These dual representations legitimated networks of consumer information exchange and effectively insulated them from the political demands of consumers. 

Paper: download PDF