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Data brokers: a threat to your online privacy

Data brokers: a threat to your online privacy

By Don Dobson

Two facts have collided in the early days of this millennium: one, much of our lives has gone digital and two, digital security measures have not kept pace with technological advancements and adoption. This is a huge problem.

Our commerce, work, social life, entertainment, information consumption and personal communication have all become digitized. Much of everyday life has either moved online or is touched in some way by our online activity, creating a stream of data coined by Google as our “digital exhaust.”

Secondly, not just laws and regulations but even broad social consensus around issues of security and privacy are falling behind the technological curve and the ever increasing collection capabilities for our data.

Consumer advocates and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are sounding the alarm on an industry many consider out of control. Its new video, Invasion of the Data Snatchers, paints a scary, dystopian view of our personal lives under scrutiny by governments and corporations. The intro to the video on their YouTube channel notes New technologies are making it easier for private companies and the government to learn about everything we do – in our homes, in our cars, in stores, and within our communities. As they collect vast amounts of data about us, things are getting truly spooky!

So, who is vacuuming up this so-called digital exhaust? One set of players in that business that few people know about and fewer still understand are “data brokers.” Pam Dixon is the executive director of the World Privacy Forum and her December 18, 2013 testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, titled What Information Do Data Brokers Have on Consumers, and How Do They Use It?, sheds full light on a growing industry with somewhere around 4,000 companies. Dixon asked:

What do a retired librarian in Wisconsin in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, a police officer, and a mother in Texas have in common? The answer is that all were victims of consumer data brokers. Data brokers collect, compile, buy and sell personally identifiable information about who we are, what we do, and much of our “digital exhaust.” 

We are their business models. The police officer was “uncovered” by a data broker who revealed his family information online, jeopardizing his safety. The mother was a victim of domestic violence who was deeply concerned about people finder web sites that published and sold her home address online. The librarian lost her life savings and retirement because a data broker put her on an eager elderly buyer and frequent donor list. She was deluged with predatory offers.

[Consumers] not able to escape from the activities of data brokers…until this Committee started its work, this entire industry largely escaped public scrutiny… Consumers have no effective rights because there is no legal framework that requires data brokers to offer consumers an opt-out or any other rights.

Frank Pasquale, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information.” He writes, Every day, corporations are connecting the dots about our personal behavior—silently scrutinizing clues left behind by our work habits and Internet use. The data compiled and portraits created are incredibly detailed, to the point of being invasive. 

In a October 16th, 2014 op-ed in the New York Times entitled, The Dark Market for Personal Data, Pasquale suggests, We need regulation to help consumers recognize the perils of the new information landscape without being overwhelmed with data.

Media investigators are starting to inform the public that the personal data being brokered can be very personal indeed. Reports from Bloomberg indicate Tapping social media, health-related phone apps and medical websites, data aggregators are scooping up bits and pieces of tens of millions of Americans’ medical histories. Even a purchase at the pharmacy can land a shopper on a health list…People would be shocked if they knew they were on some of these lists…yet millions are.

According to the Data-Driven Marketing Institute, the data-mining industry generated $156 billion in revenue in 2012. Technology CEO and Harvard professor Nathan Eagle offers up his insight on the matter … it is just the first step for the data economy. By 2020, the global Internet population will reach five billion; ten billion new machine-to-machine connections will be created; and mobile data traffic will rise 11-fold. Given the dramatic growth in the amount of data being generated, together with ever-expanding applications across industries, it is reasonable to expect that…within ten years, the data-capture industry can be expected to generate more than $500 billion annually.

The World Privacy Forum has compiled a list of 352 consumer-focused U.S. data broker sites. Check out the list and see if you’re on any of these sites. Many of the sites offer the ability for those included to opt-out; might be a good use of your time to go through that process and engage in more privacy-centric online practices in future.

With these nefarious, data grabbing institutions at large, the urgency to protect your online data, including through use of a tool like Dodoname, has never been more real.

(Image: Flickr, Simon Cunningham, link)

Posted in: Blog, Data breach

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