Get to Know These Data Brokers. They Already Know You.
Data for Sale
We hear you’re looking for a new job, trying to lose some weight, and thinking about a beach vacation. How do we know? A data broker told us.
There may be as many as 5,000 data brokers and people search sites worldwide, according to Gartner.
And there’s little oversight, Jeff Chester, a privacy advocate and director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told NPR last year.
“Because there are no online privacy laws in the United States, there’s no stop sign, there’s no go slow sign, there’s no crossing guard. The message is anything goes,” Chester said.
These data brokers can gather everything from basics like where you live and work to your social security number and children’s names. Court appearances, electronics purchases, and general interest data like if you’re a dog owner or are a working mom, can also be obtained. (Quartz has an extensive list of the kinds of data these companies collect.)
Most of the data brokers sell your info to marketers. But we’re not just worried about those marketers serving you a bunch of well-placed ads on your Facebook newsfeed or junk mail that’s creepily specific to you.
If this information falls into the wrong hands the data could be used to find and harass you online or in real life. It could be used in elaborate scams, as was the case when data broker infoUSA sold information on elderly Americans who then had their bank accounts emptied.
Information from data brokers could be used to deny employment or services, if an employer finds unsavory information or a merchant fears you won’t pay based on past charges.
And this data is not just collected from actual records or purchases: it’s often predicted, so employers and merchants could be using false or inconclusive information to make these decisions.
According to Newsweek, “While many brokers claim, probably honestly, to only provide publicly available information that can be used to verify someone’s identity or prevent fraud, there’s a fast-growing market for what’s called ‘consumer scores.’ Instead of a straight list of names, addresses, and other info, a consumer score is a computer-generated number that attempts to predict your likelihood to get sick, or to pay off a debt. Consumer scores are similar to FICO credit scores, but aren’t regulated as to what factors can be used and how transparent the score and its contributing factors are to the scored individual.”
We’ve already told you how these data brokers get their information. Now you should try to get to know the brokers (although be warned, they are notoriously secretive). After all, they already know a lot about you.
The people search site Intelius is frequently used for background checks. They were hit with a class action lawsuit in Illinois last year alleging their personal info reports violate publicity rights law.
PeakYou touts itself as a free search engine that allows you to find and contact anyone online. In 2012 the company released Peek Analytics, now called StatSocial, which TechCrunch described as a platform that “identifies where users exist elsewhere on the web and provides audience data gathered from more than 60 different social sites.”
“Sure, a free database aggregating thousands of US public records could be beloved by genealogy hobbyists across the country,” wrote the Post. “But the site is also extremely useful to those who might want to harass or physically harm someone else—and that, it seems, is what is freaking a lot of people out about it.” If you’re like the many people who searched for their name and promptly freaked out, Anna Brittain tweeted a detailed explanation of how to remove your info, at least publicly, after she found hers on the site.
Spokeo considers itself a people search engine and free white pages. We don’t know much else, but we do know that the company “narrowly won a Supreme Court victory last year after a man alleged that inaccurate educational and family details had damaged his job prospects,” according to the Verge. The article also mentions Spokeo’s “angel program” that helps adopted adults find birth parents.
Acxiom, on the other hand, has actually given some interviews to the press. The company describes itself as a provider of data to the world’s best marketers. According to Adweek, this Arkansas-based company is on a mission to make the “firm into the streamlined agency-friendly data services firm of tomorrow.”
A few years ago, the company purchased LiveRamp, a data on-boarding company that “[connects] consumer records gathered offline into information that can be used to communicate with those customers via email or targeted digital ads, to optimize website pages or measure the impact of digital ad campaigns on offline sales.” And Acxiom’s VP-corporate strategy, David Eisenberg told the Adweek, “It just makes it easier to push our data to where it can be purchased.”
In addition to selling elderly Americans information, infoUSA promotes itself as having the highest quality mailing lists. Their former executive team has also been charged with “a scheme to loot corporate funds to provide perks to the company’s ex-chief executive,” by the SEC.
You’ve probably willingly given Experian your info and didn’t known it. They are the largest credit agency data brokers in the world. And according to ProPublica, they have a marketing services division, which sells lists of names of expectant parents and families with newborns that are updated weekly, too. Oh, and they were hacked in 2015 and exposed 15 million people’s personal information.
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