As privacy advocates continue to push Congress to regulate data broker activity, writer Lois Beckett investigates in detail the types of personal data they gather, where they get that data from, and what they do with it. For example, while basic information such as age and gender is volunteered by individuals, a range of institutions from retail outlets to state motor vehicle departments sell additional data to brokers without the person’s knowledge or consent. Most of this information is used for advertising, but some data is beginning to be evaluated for other purposes that may compromise individual privacy.
What’s the Big Idea?
Most people know that their data is being collected at an ever-increasing rate, but what concerns advocates is how little control individuals have over its use. Data brokers have pushed back against attempts to increase transparency, and despite proposed legislative measures such as President Obama’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, Beckett says marketing-related data profiles in particular are unlikely to become available for inspection. Even if a profile is wrong, “the worst thing that could happen is that you get an advertising offer that isn’t relevant to you,” says Rachel Thomas of the Direct Marketing Association.