The data broker business is extremely complex and murky, with multiple layers of companies helping to track our lives by tracking our internet quests, our social media, our phones and other devices, our Facebook and Google quests, our loyalty cards, any publicly available records like voters registration, taxes, home ownership, our credit history, our employment records, medical records and so on…
The Black Friday week, with all its commercial activity, is actually a very sweet time of the year especially for data brokers since we all rush to our favorite brands’ websites to look for items of our desire!
According to a 2015 U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report, data brokers can and DO collect the following information:
- Your name, age, birthday, and gender
- Your address (and previous addresses), phone numbers, and email addresses
- Your Social Security and driver’s license numbers
- Your children’s ages and birthdays
- Your height and weight
- Your race and ethnicity
- Your religion (based on your last name)
- What languages you speak
- Whether you’re married (and whether you’re a single parent)
- Who lives with you
- Your education level and occupation (or if you’re retired)
- Bankruptcies, convictions for crimes, and tax liens
- The electronics you buy
- Your friends on social media
- How much you use the Internet and various social networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter
- Whether you use long distance calling services or mobile devices
- What kind of home you live in and how long you’ve lived there
- Your home loan amount, interest rate, and lender
- Your home’s listing price and market price
- How many rooms and bathrooms are in your home
- Whether you have a fireplace, garage, or pool
- What kinds of clothes you like
- What kinds of sporting events you attend
- The charities and causes you donate to
- Whether you gamble at casinos or buy lottery tickets
- Whether you’re a newlywed or pregnant
- The magazines and catalogs you subscribe to
- The media channels you use
- Whether you golf, ski, or camp
- Whether you own pets
- The celebrities, movies, music, and books you like
- Whether you have upscale retail cards
- The daytime TV you watch
- What credit cards you carry and your creditworthiness
- Whether you own stocks and bonds
- How many investment properties you own
- Your estimated income and your discretionary income
- Whether you have life insurance
- What car brands you prefer
- The make and model of your cars
- Whether you own a boat
- The most you’ve ever spent on travel
- Whether you’re a frequent flyer and your favorite airline
- Whether you own vacation property
- What kinds of vacations you take (including casino, timeshare, cruises or RV vacations)
- How you pay for things
- What kinds of food you buy
- How much you buy from “high-scale catalogs”
- What kinds of products you frequently buy
- Whether you buy women’s plus-sized clothing or men’s big & tall clothing
- Whether you search for ailments online
- Whether you or someone in your household smokes
- Whether you wear contact lenses
- Whether you suffer from allergies
- Whether you have an individual health insurance plan
- Whether you buy weight loss supplements
A pretty impressive list, right?
How they manage to gather all these data?
Think about this: you are revealing details about your private life without even realizing it. Whenever you post information online, register on a website, shop, or submit a public record, the companies behind the transaction create files with your data. These files are sold to data brokers who collect information, and then turn around and sell whatever they have on you to advertisers and other companies (like risk mitigation and people-search services).
Data brokers also make guesses about you and your interests based on other information they have, then sort you into groups, called “segments.” In that way, advertisers can buy lists of consumers who may be interested in particular products. For example, they know that you have an average income, low expenses, no debts and less than 30 years of age, they can assume you have no children.
Some of the tools to collect data (e.g. registration forms) allow to opt-in or opt-out (depending on the option marked by default) the legal cession of personal data. However, recent experiences such as that of the National Health Service e-records in the UK have exposed that the guarantees behind opt-out can be difficult to enforce. Additionally, studies show that basic data protection regulations such as access rights are often undermined in practice by the difficulties citizens encounter when trying to exercise them. It is therefore difficult for citizens to access, rectify or remove the information owned by private organizations, even when the data controller can be identified and the relationship between the data subject and the data broker is straightforward and clearly stated. Additionally, many of the sensing systems currently installed in urban areas usually operate without the knowledge of the citizen, who is thus unaware of its rights, the practices of the data brokers or what his or her devices are revealing about their activities.
So what’s the problem?
Besides the targeted advertising, not solicited previously by the individuals, all this information can be very sensible and can cause major disruptions in your life if it happened to fall into the wrong hands. From identity thefts to credit card fraud, there are plenty of crimes enabled by the knowledge of these data.
But fear not, you are not helpless, there’s a lot of things we can do to avoid our data from being classified and sold to third parties.
The most simple prevention task you can do is to erase the cookies from your browser regularly. This will limit the number of trackers that follow your activity from site to site.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has developed an extension for your browser that helps you when disabling trackers and preventing them from executing.
Change Your Smartphone’s Privacy Settings
Advertisers can also track you when you are browsing the web on your mobile device. You can change the privacy settings on your iPhone or Android device to limit ad tracking.
Use the privacy tools offered to you
Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, all major sites and social networks have privacy controls options and they are usually set by default.
Under the new data protection regulation by the European Union (GDPR), which will be implemented in May 2018. Third party data sharing will be more regulated and the data brokers will need to adjust in order to keep their business running.
All of the above can and will improve your privacy on the internet, but you shouldn’t expect absolute privacy. Each and every use of the most demanded services on the web comes with a trade-off. The key is to become aware of the risks and act accordingly.
With that in mind, we wish you a safe Black Friday!