The Data Brokers:  A Look into an Unregulated Industry Threatening Our Privacy

In an age where being connected has become a necessity, and, perhaps, an addiction, I find myself valuing my privacy more and more. As an aspiring entrepreneur, it seems that having a comprehensive online presence and a robust online network is essential in order to succeed.  But at what cost am I creating these so called ‘tools’?

A couple weeks ago, 60 Minutes did a story on data brokers that made me want to unplug my computer and trade my iPhone for a StarTAC. As defined by 60 Minutes, “data brokers collect, analyze, and package some of our most sensitive personal information and sell it as a commodity to each other, to advertisers, and even to the government – often without our direct knowledge.”(http://www.cbsnews.com/news/shocked-to-learn-how-data-brokers-are-watching-you/)

Never heard of data brokers?  You’re not alone.  The billion-dollar industry has flown mostly under the radar since inception some twenty years ago.  To better understand exactly how you’re affected, let’s start from the beginning.

The first thing a data broker does is collect data on you in order to put together a dossier, which can later be sold to a third party. Data brokers collect data by observing your behavior online and pulling in data from websites and applications.   For example, every time you open a webpage, any webpage, there is a third party lurking in the background recording your movements.  If you’re doing some online shopping, it records which items you’re looking at.   If you’re reading an online news site, it’ll record which articles you’re clicking on.

Another disturbing example of unwanted data harvesting occurred last December when 100 million Android users downloaded a free flashlight app that secretly turned their phones into tracking devices capable of collecting information on users’ exact whereabouts and activities. The application was eventually shut down by the Federal Trade Commission, but not before the collected data was sold to third parties.

Because data brokers have such a vast reach, they are able to not only collect basic information on you like race, age, sex, martial status but also more sensitive information like your current salary, credit history, and medical records.  This information is then sold to companies, which use it to better target consumers, or even to the government, which uses it to round-out background checks.

So what’s being done to protect our privacy? Not much.  The data broker industry is essentially unregulated, so business continues as usual.  The Federal Trade Commission and President Obama have recently proposed initiatives to empower consumers to see what type of information data brokers have amassed, but those proposals don’t do anything to block the collection of information. Further, it’s difficult to even identify data brokers since they do not call themselves data brokers. Instead, they call themselves, ‘app makers’, ‘marketing companies’, or ‘marketing retailers.’

While there is no way to avoid data brokers completely, there are steps you can take to reclaim some privacy. Please find suggestions below that range from the simple to the extreme:

  1. Stop using Google search and start using Duck Duck Go.  Google saves every search you’ve ever done while Duck Duck Go does not.
  2. Go to your privacy settings in your iPhone, scroll down to advertising, and turn on ‘Limit Ad Tracking’ and then ‘Reset Advertising Identifier’.
  3. Start using White Hat Aviator browser instead of Google chrome or safari.  White Hat Aviator has built in privacy functions that block many data brokers.
  4. Download Disconnect, a software program that exposes data trackers that are following you and then blocks them.
  5. Create fake online identities to prevent data blockers from knowing your true identify.  ‘Mask Me’ is a helpful tool that creates fake email addresses that forward to real email addresses.  You can use the fake email addresses when shopping online or subscribing to sites.
  6. Put fake names on the credit cards you use for online shopping.
  7. Carry your smart phone in a bag lined with thin metal to prevent GPS tracking data from being collected.

For more information about data brokers please see the following resources:

  1. Acxiom Corporation, one of the largest data brokers, just recently provided a link enabling people to review what types of information the company has connected to your name – aboutthedata.com
  2. ProPublica website – https://www.propublica.org/article/everything-we-know-about-what-data-brokers-know-about-you
  3. 60 Minutes Overtime – http://www.cbsnews.com/news/shocked-to-learn-how-data-brokers-are-watching-you/

 

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