Data Brokers: What's in YOUR Dossier?

Category: Privacy

The Internet has made it easy for ordinary people to collect enormous amounts of information about nearly any subject; that is indisputably a good thing. However, when it comes to the multi-billion-dollar business of collecting and selling data about other people, that use of the Internet can take a sinister turn. Read on for the scoop on “data brokers" and how they operate, and what they know about you...

What is a Data Broker?

The Federal Trade Commission defines “data brokers” to include “companies that collect information, including personal information about consumers, from a wide variety of sources for the purpose of reselling such information to their customers for various purposes, including verifying an individual’s identity, differentiating records, marketing products, and preventing financial fraud.” There’s quite a mix of beneficial and intrusive applications in that definition.

For example, your credit report (if it’s good) can be an asset to you when you want to buy anything and pay for it later: a house or car, a smartphone, even an insurance policy. But should your credit rating be used to rate your risk of getting sick? Insurers increasingly think it should, presumably because they have found a correlation between low credit scores and high health care insurance claims.

Beyond the familiar and fairly easy to understand credit report (you either pay your bills on time or you don’t) are many other consumer activities that data brokers compile in individual dossiers. And it's been happening long before the Internet made it easier.

Data Brokers

The things you buy, as documented by warranty cards, itemized grocery store receipts, and other telltales, go into your dossier. Things you do, such as exercise, take cruises, or rack up parking tickets, are tabulated. Then things get really creepy, as in “Minority Report” creepy.

What you think and feel are also estimated in the dossiers maintained by data brokers. What kinds of food you like; your favorite color; your religious persuasion; your political leanings; your positions on specific issues ranging from environmental conservation to abortion -- all of these thoughts and emotional reactions are presumed to be evident in your behaviors, and added to your dossier.

Buy, Sell, and Trade

I am using the word “dossier” repeatedly knowing full well that it carriers sinister connotations of invisible, anonymous, practically omniscient beings who are spying on you -- because that is what’s happening. You don’t have just one dossier but dozens, perhaps hundreds. No one knows exactly how many firms are engaged in the data brokerage industry.

But we do know they buy, sell, and trade these personal dossiers as if each was a baseball card. One data broker’s dossier on you combined with another data broker’s dossier on you yields an even more complete and commercially valuable dossier. There’s no telling who has the most complete dossier, or how many copies of it are in whose hands.

The government buys dossiers from data brokers. One example is the “Work Numbers” database, a product of credit reporting agency Equifax. It contains current, active employment and salary records on 54 million Americans, and another 175 million historical records. The federal government began buying Work Numbers in 2013 to help verify the eligibility of applicants for benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid. That may seem like a perfectly good reason for government to buy personal data from private data brokers, but it opens the door to alarming abuses.

There's Always a Loophole

Do you know what's in your credit report? Do you know the difference between a credit report and a credit score? See my articles Get Your Free Credit Report Online and How to Get Your Free Credit Score.

The government is restricted by law from collecting certain data on its citizens. But data brokers are not restricted in any way. If government can buy what it cannot legally obtain through its own efforts, laws restricting domestic government spying become toothless.

Former Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) ordered a staff study of the data brokerage industry when he was Chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The 42-page report, completed in December, 2013, excoriated the data brokerage industry for its lack of transparency and its frequent disregard for the few laws that govern it. For instance:

“Teletrack, Inc. paid a $1.8 million penalty to settle FTC charges that it sold lists of consumers who had previously applied for non-traditional credit products, including payday loans, to third parties – primarily pay day lenders and sub-prime auto lenders – that wanted to use the information to target potential customers. The FTC alleged that the information Teletrack sold constituted consumer (credit) reports and could not be sold for marketing.”

There are currently no federal laws regulating the collection and distribution of personal consumer data unless the data is used to evaluate creditworthiness; then the Fair Credit Reporting Act applies. But otherwise, you have no legal right to know what data brokers know about you; no recourse in the event data brokers maintain inaccurate data about you; no right to know who your data is shared with or sold to.

With massive data breaches occurring regularly, the job of data brokers has become so much easier. They no longer have to snoop on users as they surf the web, and piece together the details of your life. They can wait until your bank, your health insurer, your department store, and your favorite hotel are hacked, and wait for that valuable (and much more detailed) personal data to show up on the dark web.

Most data brokers are not Credit Reporting Agencies subject to the FCRA. They’re free to do whatever they want with your data, even make up assumptions about you, and distribute your dossier to anyone they please.

Since Rockefeller retired from the Senate in 2015, Congress has been slow taking up the cause of reining in data brokers. In 2017, the Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act (S.1815) was introduced and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. A companion bill was introduced in the House in 2018, but has likewise been mired in committee.

As the 2020 elections approach, you may want to ask your senator, congresscritter, and the other candidates who want your vote where they stand on this issue. You’ll probably hear, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” Follow up, and don’t let candidates weasel out of answering. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Data Brokers: What's in YOUR Dossier?"

Posted by:

Michael Hamilton
27 Jun 2019

Despite claims that "it isn't your data, it's data about you," I believe that everyone should have the right to see and correct such data, and that it cannot be sold or bartered without the permission of the subject. I do recognize, however, that any significant amount of control would be impossible to find, much less enforce. All a bad actor would have to do is move operations off-shore to be beyond the reach of USA law enforcement. How can we address that issue?

Posted by:

27 Jun 2019

This sort of thing would not be legal in Europe. The U.S. needs to get with the program and enforce the protection of its citizens' information, not watch it go to the highest bidder.

Posted by:

27 Jun 2019

Another example of 'Big Brother', but by private companies without Governmental control or oversight. If these brokers want to make money off what we do and buy, they should also pay us.

Posted by:

bert lowi
28 Jun 2019

OK,Bob. Now that you've scared the pants off me, how do I find out who knows what about me and how can I get my name removed?

Posted by:

01 Jul 2019

To think that a comprehensive "Consumers' Digital Bill of Rights" can actually be realized is a near impossibility. No matter how well the intent would be; the corporate vested interests will never allow it.

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