Personal information is a commodity. Businesses around the globe specialize in aggregating this commodity and selling it for profit to interested buyers. These businesses are called data brokers, and they make their income by collecting as much information on you as possible.
What types of data do data brokers collect? As much as they can acquire, including an individual’s name, address, email address, telephone number, age, gender, marital status, income level, hobbies, medical history, social media history, occupation, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation and more. Is that a disturbing revelation? It should be. With few regulations to limit the flow and control of this data, there is a significant cause for concern that the collection of this information may not always be used in your best interest.
How do data brokers gain access to such detailed and personal data? Public records certainly offer a wealth of information about a person, including anything filed with a county recorder’s office such as loans, real estate transactions, and court filings. A great deal of the information data brokers gather, however, is typically released by the information owners themselves.
Data brokers gain access to much of their data from third parties. Companies that extract personal information from consumers for a perceived benefit is often sold to data brokers as an additional source of income. Anything posted on social media sites, from birthdates to status updates, can be included in these databases. Anytime a person fills out a survey, questionnaire, or contest, this data can be added to the database. When a person obtains a grocery store club card or downloads a free app from the app store, personal data can be included in a database. Less restrictive privacy policies from companies people choose to do business with may also permit the release or sale of this data to other companies. Any piece of data a person freely provides to others through a wide variety of means may end up as another piece of valuable information in a data broker’s database.
What happens to this information once data brokers collect it? They weave pieces of information together to form a surprisingly accurate and thorough profile of each person in their databases and then sell that data to interested buyers. Data brokers are in the business of aggregating and selling data, and there are many companies around the world involved in this lucrative industry.
How can you stop data brokers from selling your information? You can’t. Most data brokers won’t tell consumers what information is being collected, how it’s being used, or even if a person is in their databases. Some of the information a data broker collects, and sells to others, might not even be accurate, but there’s no way for a consumer to know this without the opportunity to access his or her profile.
Data brokers have an extensive profile on as many people as possible – with very little oversight or regulation on how this information can be stored and used. So far, self-regulation by data brokers has been the primary means to keep this collection of data safe and out of the hands of those who would use it for nefarious purposes. But is the data actually safe? Without oversight, there’s simply no way to tell.
Regulation is needed to ensure individuals can monitor their personal dossiers maintained by data brokers. A system similar to that for an individual’s personal credit history could be a starting template for such an accomplishment.
Consumers currently have the opportunity to obtain a copy of their credit reports for free once per year from the corporations that maintain them. This allows an individual to see what information is on file and dispute any inaccuracies.
To pull your free credit report from one or all three credit reporting companies, go to http://annualcreditreport.com
Access to a personal dossier report from each data broker free once per year would be a means to ensure the same level of accuracy and consistency. Limitations on third party data accessibility should also be established to prevent a consumer’s most sensitive information from being handed to anyone willing to pay for it, similar to how a credit report is obtained by a third party.
Until regulation is established to ensure consumers are protected from potential harm by data sold by data brokers, the best way to limit the amount of data these brokers collect is to limit where you share information.