The announcement earlier this week that Intuit, the financial software giant, would be buying the personal finance company Credit Karma for $7 billion was striking. The tech industry is under more antitrust scrutiny than ever; just a few weeks ago, the Federal Trade Commission announced a broad inquiry into the past decade of acquisitions by the five biggest tech giants, with a focus on mergers that kill off budding rivals. This deal certainly raises that prospect: Intuit and Credit Karma compete on various fronts, and Intuit’s most recent federal filings named Credit Karma’s free tax preparation software as a threat to its dominant offering, TurboTax. Intuit has said it will keep Credit Karma’s service free, and probably needs to promise as much to regulators to get the deal approved.
But antitrust enforcers, whose core responsibility is to keep markets competitive and protect consumers, are not just watching for mergers that kill off rivals. They’re also starting to look more closely at how tech companies acquire and use data. And that seems to be the main event here. The companies themselves have suggested that a driving force behind the merger is Intuit wanting to get its hands on Credit Karma’s stash of user data. Which raises an important question: Do consumers benefit from deals where the key asset being sold is their own personal information?
We’re talking about a lot of data here. Credit Karma, whose business is built around a free credit monitoring app, boasts more than a hundred million users. While those people don’t pay to use Credit Karma, they do turn over their financial information, as well as the kinds of behavioral and location data that other companies, like Facebook and Google, track. The platform’s algorithms then help lenders microtarget users with offers for credit cards, loans, and other financial products. Credit Karma gets a cut when users sign up.
“There’s no business person on the planet who doesn’t want to get access to consumer financial transaction details—that is a pot of gold,” said Kristin Johnson, a professor at Tulane Law School and an expert on financial technology. “The information regarding your purchases and sales, all credits and debits related to your account, really tell a full narrative about you and your life and the things you value and the things you have committed financial resources toward.”
According to Intuit CEO Sasan Goodarzi, the merger will benefit not just the companies, but also consumers. “What you’re now able to bring together with the two companies is the customers’ complete financial identity so they can get the best loan and insurance products for them,” he said in a conference call announcing the merger Monday, as reported by American Banker. By combining the two companies’ data sets, in other words, Intuit will be able to build more richly detailed dossiers of the financial backgrounds for millions of people. That, in turn, will allow lenders—and Intuit itself—to target offers even more efficiently. (When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Intuit pointed me to smartmoneydecisions.com, a website the companies created about their deal.)
It’s true that companies can use data to microtarget users with better deals. If you’ve got great credit, for example, your financial history might indeed lead to you getting better offers: cards with more points, loans with lower interest rates, and so on. But financial data has also been used to benefit corporate bottom lines at the expense of the consumer. This week, the tech publication The Markup published an investigation showing that the insurance giant Allstate has been trying to get Maryland regulators to approve a pricing algorithm for auto insurance that, according to the article, would squeeze more money out of the biggest spenders, rather than pricing strictly according to risk. (Maryland ultimately rejected its proposal.) Intuit itself has been documented steering customers to paid products when they qualified for free ones.