What information do data brokers have, and how do they use it?
December 19, 2013 10:53 AM   Subscribe

From the testimony, PDF of Pam Dixon (World Privacy Forum) before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation:
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.

More from Ms. Dixon's testimony, PDF:
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. These people - and 320 million others in the United States - are not able to escape from the activities of data brokers. Our research shows that only a small percentage of known consumer data brokers offer a voluntary opt out. These opt outs can be incomplete, extremely difficult, and must typically be done one-by-one, site-by-site. Often, third parties are not allowed to opt individual consumers out of data brokers. This state of affairs exists because no legal framework requires data broker to offer opt out or suppression of consumer data. Few people know that data brokers exist, and beyond that, few know what they do.
Ms. Dixon's testimony triggered an investigation of a data broker's list of rape victims by the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation have published a Committee Majority Staff report that's available online, PDF.

A quote from the Executive Summary:
"This Committee Majority staff report focuses on data broker activities that are subject to far less statutory consumer protection: the collection and sale of consumer data specifically for marketing purposes. In this arena, data brokers operate with minimal transparency. One of the primary ways data brokers package and sell data is by putting consumers into categories or 'buckets' that enable marketers – the customers of data brokers – to target potential and existing customers. Such practices in many cases may serve the beneficial purpose of providing consumers with products and services specific to their interests and needs. However, it can become a different story when buckets describing consumers using financial characteristics end up in the hands of predatory businesses seeking to identify vulnerable consumers, or when marketers use consumers' data to engage in differential pricing. Further, the data breaches that have repeatedly occurred in this industry and with others in the data economy underscore the public's need to understand the volume and specificity of data consumer information held by data brokers."
posted by rjs (10 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
So much for the tired excuse for surveillance - "if you're doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide." People can be harmed when their personal data is collected and shared without their consent.
posted by mark7570 at 11:03 AM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

...and nothing of consequence will happen. Maaayyyybe there'll be some asinine HIPAA-style regulation, maybe, but it will be thoroughly ignored and outmaneuvered.

Just like HIPAA.
posted by aramaic at 11:18 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

"We are property." - Charles Fort

Somewhere in the USA's revolutionary war era letters -- I read this long before the Internet -- is a lament that the Colonies do nothing to protect elderly widows from predators.

I'd say nothing has changed, but I suspect it's gotten worse since then.
posted by hank at 11:46 AM on December 19, 2013

I'd say nothing has changed, but I suspect it's gotten worse since then.

America has long been a fertile ground for confidence tricksters, bunco peddlers, grifters, hucksters and scam artists.

Data protection in the US is piss poor, and that legal climate not only serves as a refuge for data peddlers, but also creates commercial pressure for the EU and elsewhere -- to be driven down to the same level. One source of that pressure is the lofty tech sector that treats personal data like any other input, and wants to operate free of consequence, but regardless of what you think of Google and its peers, the impact is found several tiers down in the domain of data peddlers.
posted by holgate at 11:55 AM on December 19, 2013

In case you missed these NYT articles:

A Data Broker Offers a Peek Behind the Curtain
Acxiom, one of the most secretive and prolific collectors of consumer information, is embarking on a novel public relations strategy: openness. On Wednesday, it plans to unveil a free Web site where United States consumers can view some of the information the company has collected about them...

Acxiom Lets Consumers See Data It Collects
Aboutthedata.com delivers a soothing message about Acxiom, a data broker that collects, stores, analyzes and sells billions of pieces of information about consumers with the aim of helping corporate clients like banks, insurers and retailers aim marketing pitches at specific audience segments. ... Yet critics say the new consumer site omits so many details about Acxiom’s data-gathering and analysis practices that it sanitizes the data mining behind data-driven marketing. ... In addition to allowing consumers to view their records or to opt out of Acxiom’s marketing databases [emphasis mine], the site lets them change individual data elements in their files.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:27 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Come to think of it, there's also this report from the GAO, PDF.

A quote from 'Why GAO did this study':
In recent years, information resellers - companies that collect and resell information on individuals - dramatically increased the collection and sharing of personal data for marketing purposes, raising privacy concerns among some in Congress. Recent growth in the use of social media, mobile applications, and other technologies intensified these concerns. GAO was asked to examine privacy issues and information resellers. This report addresses (1) privacy laws applicable to consumer information held by resellers, (2) gaps in the law that may exist, and (3) views on approaches for improving consumer data privacy.
posted by rjs at 9:48 PM on December 19, 2013

a data broker's list of rape victims

Every time I think there's no outrage left in me, someone digs down and opens a new level of hell.
posted by bryon at 10:26 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

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