Data Brokers

What you need to know:

Data brokers are in the business of collecting, combining and analyzing thousands of data points on you and selling that information to corporations, marketers, investors and even private individuals. The data brokerage industry is estimated to generate about $200 billion in annual revenue.

These companies collect data themselves or buy it from other companies to form data profiles of you. They collect publicly available information from sources like property records, marriage licenses, voter registration and driver’s license/motor vehicle records. They also collect online data like browsing history, social media data and online purchase history. Plus they combine it with data they may have purchased from commercial offline sources like retailers to build a comprehensive profile of you.

Types of data brokers include people search sites, where users can input a piece of data about an individual and get additional personal information on that person; marketing data providers that sell personal information as well as inferences on interests to corporations for tailored marketing and advertising; risk mitigation companies that offer products to verify identities and help detect fraud.

This type of data can pose risks to consumers if, for instance, the data is incorrect in risk mitigation databases, leading to consumers being denied products or services. It can also lead to unscrupulous corporate practices in the form of price discrimination or exploitative products (example: payday lending) targeted to a vulnerable population. Additionally it can lead to companies making inferences about individuals leading to denial of job opportunities or higher priced products/services (example: being placed in ”Diabetes Interest” category leading to higher insurance premiums).

Finally, this type of information can be used maliciously by private individuals for things like internet vigilantism, harassment, extortion, identity theft, scamming, among others, especially since these companies have been consistently vulnerable to security breaches. Many of these companies also take a lax approach to vetting customers that buy data from them leading to sensitive information ending up in the wrong hands.

These data brokers do not have a direct relationship with the people they are collecting data on, so most people aren’t aware that they exists nor do they get any share of the profits from their own data. This allows the industry to be incredibly opaque, with no real incentive to interact with the public or submit to public sentiment. It is up to the government to regulate this industry, but such attempts have been minimal to date.

Learn More:

Overview of what data brokers are and how your data is collected and used

List of major data brokers

Whitepaper from the FTC calling for more accountability and transparency from data brokers

Doxing, the practice of researching and publicly broadcasting private or identifying information

A data broker was selling lists of rape victims, alcoholics and erectile dysfunction sufferers

One data broker’s location datasets being used by a variety of third parties to understand the pandemic

Examples of data breaches at two large data brokers: Acxiom, Epsilon

Example of a gift card scam which was enabled by data from brokers

What to do:

Getting these firms to remove your information is time-consuming, complicated and sometimes impossible. There is no central source or mechanism for you to find out about data brokers or remove their information on you.

Some data brokers allow you to remove raw data but not the inferences derived from them, making it difficult for you to know how they are categorized. Some companies allow you to remove data stored to date but will continue to collect data through automated processes. Others simply won’t allow opting out or make it incredibly hard to do so.

See here for a (long) list of large Data Brokers and how to opt out to some degree. Alternatively you can use a paid service like DeleteMe, although they will not remove your data from all brokers.

Try looking yourself up on a people search site such as whitepages.com which provides basic information for free (age, city, relatives) and other personal information (phone number, address, criminal history and other public records) for a monthly price.