Data brokers collect and store personal information on nearly every U.S. consumer. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimatesthat a single data broker company has information on 1.4 billion consumer transactions, totaling over 700 billion data points and 3,000 data segments for nearly every American consumer.
What information are data brokers collecting?
You’ve likely heard of companies collecting personal information such as name, address, age, and e-mail. You may also have heard about data brokers collecting information on voting registration, purchasing history, criminal records, or vehicle registration.
However, data brokers can go much further than this.
They also collect information on “life-event triggers,” including marriage, divorce, births, deaths, and even buying a home. They also collect salary information, paystub data, and charitable donations. This information is then sold to companies and marketing agencies to help them target their advertising more effectively.
For example, a home warranty company could purchase a list of new homeowners to target their home warranty sales or advertisements. Companies pay a lot of money for this information, and there’s a pretty good reason why: By one estimate, a data brokerage division of a company adds more than 290,000 records on new homeowners each month.
These companies don’t just collect information, they use it to make inferences about you and place you into consumer groups. The FTC explains these topics can include assumptions such as “dog owners” or “romance novel readers,” or more sensitive categories such as “interested in diabetes” or “low educational attainment and low net worth.”
The FTC explains that these categories can put consumers at risk without the consumer knowing about it. The report reveals, “While data brokers have a data category for ‘Diabetes Interest’ that a manufacturer of sugar-free products could use to offer product discounts, an insurance company could use that same category to classify a consumer as higher risk.”
Experts, including the FTC, explain that while there are steps consumers can take to remove personal information from Google, there is very little individuals can do to stop data broker companies from collecting data and selling it for marketing purposes.
According to the FTC: “Broker practices have grown dramatically in breadth and depth, as data brokers have the ability to collect information from more sources, including consumers’ online activities; analyze it through new and emerging algorithms and business models; and store the information indefinitely due to dwindling storage costs. Despite the Commission’s recommendations, lack of transparency and choice remain significant issues in this industry.”
This lack of transparency leaves consumers largely in the dark about what information is being collected and how it is being used.
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