Data brokers are like all-seeing eyes. They cast panoptic gazes over all they see. Most people know nothing about these companies, but these companies certainly know a lot about them.
Many people might assume that Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Google know the most about their personal lives, yet data brokers probably know even more. Although you may not know about them, they know about you, and a lot more than you may realise.
These companies are information powerhouses that exercise extensive surveillance over hundreds of millions of people. While many of Silicon Valley’s corporations are household names, data brokers are relatively unknown. Facebook and Google, for example, are recognisable names to most people –names like Acxiom, Experian, and Palantir are not. Yet their business is to intimately know individuals. Acxiom states that it “collects and maintains a storehouse of consumer information covering nearly every household in the US”. Experian is an influential credit bureau that also provides marketing services “by tapping its database of 235 million US consumers.”
This business collects, stores, shares, and sells personal data, typically without one’s knowledge or consent. This detailed information, in turn, is shared and sold between businesses, their affiliates and partners, advertising networks, financial corporations, insurance companies, and many other kinds of institutions.
Once this information is gathered, data brokers organise, analyse, and package it to be shared or sold to various actors from other data brokers to businesses to government agencies. Their services are usually sought to help establish and verify identities, enhance advertising and marketing, detect fraud and theft, and perform so-called people searches.
Many individuals unknowingly and unwittingly provide data brokers with their own personal data. Most people take advantage of diverse kinds of information services – internet, Wi-Fi, mobile, social media, and so on – to conduct their daily personal and professional lives. But when they use these services, they are automatically and immediately sharing all kinds of information about themselves, not only with family and friends, but also with various businesses and third parties.
Further, because most data brokers do not tend to directly interact with consumers, consumers remain unaware of their existence, not to mention their seemingly secretive data collection practices.
Diverse kinds of personal data are obtained by data brokers, including names, addresses, contacts, income levels, bankruptcy information, warranty registrations, internet browsing patterns, search histories, purchases, voting history, and countless other data points. As Edith Ramirez, the former chairperson of the US Federal Trade Commission, states, “The extent of consumer profiling today means that data brokers often know as much – or even more – about us than our family and friends, including our online and in-store purchases, our political and religious affiliations, our income and socioeconomic status, and more.”
For example, they can pinpoint an individual’s personal habits, preferences, and routines. They know, for instance, whether you prefer dogs or cats. They know what newspapers, magazines, and websites you read and visit. They can tell what car you drive. They can establish your educational background, professional credentials, and socioeconomic status. They can determine your political perspectives and sympathies. They can discern your religious affiliation. They can figure out your sexual identity and orientation.
Data brokers also use specific categories in which to describe and place individuals based on the personal data gathered about them. Some categories are relatively innocuous, such as pet owner, coffee drinker, or football enthusiast. But other categories are more targeted and intrusive, such as single mom struggling in an urban setting, people who do not speak English and felt more comfortable speaking in Spanish, ability to afford products, thrifty elders, gamblers, new age and organic lifestyle adherents, bikers, members of more than five online shopping sites, people with fireplaces, people who do a lot of medical googling, and people who have credit with a low-end department store. There are even bizarre categories like purchasers of novelty Elvis products.
Data brokers often know as much – or even more – about us than our family and friends
The US Federal Trade Commission conducted a study of the data brokerage industry that revealed how these companies collect, store, share, and sell billions of personal data points on nearly every American consumer, operating with little transparency. The report, Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability, examined nine major data brokers – Acxiom, Corelogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf, and Recorded Future – representing a cross-section of the industry. The report identified three broad themes that seemingly guide these companies’ practices.
First, data brokers collect personal data from many sources, mostly without individuals’ knowledge or consent. Since most of this information is not obtained directly from individuals themselves, they are unaware that data brokers are collecting and using it.
Second, data brokers collect, store, share, and sell billions of data points on millions of people, including on nearly every American consumer. For example, one of the companies has information on more than 1.4 billion consumer transactions and 700 billion data points; another company adds more than three billion new data points to its database every month; and another one has 3,000 data points for nearly every single consumer in the United States alone.
Third, data brokers combine and analyse personal data to make potentially sensitive inferences about individuals, including their racial or ethnic identity, religious affiliation, political associations, and health conditions like pregnancy, diabetes, and high cholesterol. For example, a category like ‘motorcycle enthusiast’ could be used to offer discounts on motorcycle-related items to a consumer but simultaneously be used by insurance providers as a sign of risky behaviour.
This report illuminates how most data brokers engage in relatively secretive practices without appropriate transparency. This industry-wide secretiveness and lack of transparency raises privacy concerns. In 2015, American Senator Ed Markey stated that “we need to shed light on this shadow industry of surreptitious data collection that has amassed covert dossiers on hundreds of millions of Americans”.
Markey, along with three other senators, introduced the Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Bill, which ultimately failed to get passed.
Other industry practices raise concerns, such as the retention and reuse of personal data. Some of these companies not only collect personal data, but also store it indefinitely and often reuse it for other purposes unrelated to the initial intended collection. There is no substantial legislation or regulation to monitor or reign in these companies. According to Jeff Chester, a privacy advocate, “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”.
Further, most individuals do not know how, and indeed cannot, access their personal data collected and controlled by these companies. Data brokers offer people extremely limited choices for accessing and reviewing their personal data; moreover, these few choices tend to be invisible and incomplete. They consequently have limited to no control over the huge amounts of personal data about them within data brokers’ databases.
The Federal Trade Communications report advocates for more robust government oversight of the data brokerage industry. It “recommends that Congress consider enacting legislation to make data broker practices more visible to consumers and to give consumers greater control over the immense amounts of personal information about them collected and shared by data brokers.” Indeed, as Edith Ramirez, the former US Federal Trade Commission chairperson argues, “it’s time to bring transparency and accountability to bear on this industry on behalf of consumers, many of whom are unaware that data brokers even exists”.
But regulating data brokers will be much simpler to do than keeping your information away from them.
Marc Kosciejew is a lecturer and former head of department of Library Information and Archive Sciences at the University of Malta.
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