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How does my personal information get online?

People search websites are one type of “data broker,” that collect, publicly list, and sell your personal data. These websites get personal information by scraping public records from a huge variety of sources, and generally aren’t very transparent about where the information specifically came from.

Data brokers compile all kinds of personal details about you and neatly package it up to sell. These sites can have everything from your name and address, to shopping habits and religious views. Here’s a list of some of their biggest sources for data:

1. Government and public records

Examples of government and public records include, but are not limited to:

  • Real estate transactions (including appraisals)
  • Trademark filings
  • Marriage licenses and divorce decrees
  • Any unsealed lawsuits or legal actions
  • Birth and death certificates
  • Census statistics
  • Voter registrations
  • Driver’s licenses
  • Utility companies
  • Government spending reports
  • Political campaign contributions
  • Sex offender registrations
  • Legislation minutes
  • Business and entity filings
  • Professional and business licenses
  • Criminal records

2. Self-Reported Information

Those mailing lists and sweepstakes are typically used as a form of lead-generation for retargeting an audience with ads. Some examples of self-reported information include:

  • Sweepstakes entries
  • Mailing list sign-ups
  • Rebate and warranty cards
  • Contests
  • Surveys

If signing up for a mailing list, contest or sweepstakes, always check the Terms and Conditions to be sure that the company isn’t re-using your personal information for other purposes.

3. Social Media

Social media networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn are notorious for sharing your personal information with various third parties and advertisers. 

This usually depends on each site’s Terms of Use regarding sharing of information, as well as your own privacy settings on each site (e.g., your Facebook likes and interests, your friends, your tweets, the work information you provide to LinkedIn). 

Online forums like Reddit or Quora can be goldmines of information for data brokers and advertisers. Be wary of using your real identity and sharing any real information about yourself when using online forums.

4. Other data brokers

Secondary sites, advertising networks, companies, data brokers, and all sorts of other third parties collect, store, and sell this information through data mining and online tracking. They crawl the web searching for information, and use it to build a profile of you: who they think you are, and what they think you like. Then, they target you with ads based on your profile, and constantly update your information with anything new they find while scraping the web, plus, they sell your information to whoever wants to buy it. 

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