Posted 5 months ago on June 17, 2014, 8:31 p.m. EST by LeoYoh
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Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You
Tuesday, 17 June 2014 00:00
By Lois Beckett, ProPublica | News Analysis
The companies that sell information about how much money you make - and whether you’re pregnant, divorced, or trying to lose weight - are facing new scrutiny.
We've spent a lot of time this past year trying to understand how the National Security Agency gathers and stores information about ordinary people. But there's also a thriving public market for data on individual Americans—especially data about the things we buy and might want to buy.
Consumer data companies are scooping up huge amounts of consumer information about people around the world and selling it, providing marketers details about whether you're pregnant or divorced or trying to lose weight, about how rich you are and what kinds of cars you drive. But many people still don't know data brokers exist.
The Federal Trade Commission is pushing the companies to give consumers more information and control over what happens to their data. The White House released a report this May outlining concerns that these detailed consumer profiles might lead to race or income-based discrimination—what the White House called "digital redlining."
It's very hard to tell who is collecting or sharing your data—or what kinds of information companies are collecting. Early this year, Office Max sent a letter to a grieving father addressed to his name, followed by "daughter killed in car crash."
Here's a look at what we know—and what we don't—about the consumer data industry.
How much do these companies know about individual people?
They start with the basics, like names, addresses and contact information, and add on demographics, like age, race, occupation and "education level," according to consumer data firm Acxiom's overview of its various categories.
But that's just the beginning: The companies collect lists of people experiencing "life-event triggers" like getting married, buying a home, sending a kid to college—or even getting divorced.
Credit reporting giant Experian has a separate marketing services division, which sells lists of "names of expectant parents and families with newborns" that are "updated weekly."
The companies also collect data about your hobbies and many of the purchases you make. Want to buy a list of people who read romance novels? Epsilon can sell you that, as well as a list of people who donate to international aid charities.
A subsidiary of credit reporting company Equifax even collects detailed salary and pay stub information for roughly 38 percent of employed Americans, as NBC news reported. As part of handling employee verification requests, the company gets the information directly from employers.
Equifax said in a statement that the information is only sold to customers "who have been verified through a detailed credentialing process." It added that if a mortgage company or other lender wants to access information about your salary, they must obtain your permission to do so.
Of course, data companies typically don't have all of this information on any one person. As Acxiom notes in its overview, "No individual record ever contains all the possible data." And some of the data these companies sell is really just a guess about your background or preferences, based on the characteristics of your neighborhood, or other people in a similar age or demographic group.
Where are they getting all this info?
The stores where you shop sell it to them.
Datalogix, for instance, which collects information from store loyalty cards, says it has information on more than $1 trillion in consumer spending "across 1400+ leading brands." It doesn't say which ones. (Datalogix did not respond to our requests for comment.)
Data companies usually refuse to say exactly what companies sell them information, citing competitive reasons. And retailers also don't make it easy for you to find out whether they're selling your information.
But thanks to California's "Shine the Light" law, researchers at U.C. Berkeley were able to get a small glimpse of how companies sell or share your data. The study recruited volunteers to ask more than 80 companies how the volunteers' information was being shared.
Only two companies actually responded with details about how volunteers' information had been shared. Upscale furniture store Restoration Hardware said that it had sent "your name, address and what you purchased" to seven other companies, including a data "cooperative" that allows retailers to pool data about customer transactions, and another company that later became part of Datalogix. (Restoration Hardware hasn't responded to our request for comment.)
Walt Disney also responded and described sharing even more information: not just a person's name and address and what they purchased, but their age, occupation, and the number, age and gender of their children. It listed companies that received data, among them companies owned by Disney, like ABC and ESPN, as well as others, including Honda, HarperCollins Publishing, Almay cosmetics, and yogurt company Dannon.
But Disney spokeswoman Zenia Mucha said that Disney's letter, sent in 2007, "wasn't clear" about how the data was actually shared with different companies on the list. Outside companies like Honda only received personal information as part of a contest, sweepstakes, or other joint promotion that they had done with Disney, Mucha said. The data was shared "for the fulfillment of that contest prize, not for their own marketing purposes."
Where else do data brokers get information about me?
Government records and other publicly available information, including some sources that may surprise you. Your state Department of Motor Vehicles, for instance, may sell personal information— like your name, address, and the type of vehicles you own—to data companies, although only for certain permitted purposes, including identify verification.
Public voting records, which include information about your party registration and how often you vote, can also be bought and sold for commercial purposes in some states.
Are there limits to the kinds of data these companies can buy and sell?
Yes, certain kinds of sensitive data are protected—but much of your information can be bought and sold without any input from you.
Federal law protects the confidentiality of your medical records and your conversations with your doctor. There are also strict rules regarding the sale of information used to determine your credit-worthiness, or your eligibility for employment, insurance and housing. For instance, consumers have the right to view and correct their own credit reports, and potential employers have to ask for your consent before they buy a credit report about you.
Other than certain kinds of protected data—including medical records and data used for credit reports—consumers have no legal right to control or even monitor how information about them is bought and sold. As the FTC notes, "There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes."
So they don't sell information about my health?
Actually, they do.
Data companies can capture information about your "interests" in certain health conditions based on what you buy—or what you search for online. Datalogix has lists of people classified as "allergy sufferers" and "dieters."Acxiom sells data on whether an individual has an "online search propensity" for a certain "ailment or prescription."
Consumer data is also beginning to be used to evaluate whether you're making healthy choices.
One health insurance company recently bought data on more than three million people's consumer purchases in order to flag health-related actions, like purchasing plus-sized clothing, the Wall Street Journal reported. (The company bought purchasing information for current plan members, not as part of screening people for potential coverage.)
Spokeswoman Michelle Douglas said that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina would use the data to target free programming offers to their customers.
Douglas suggested that it might be more valuable for companies to use consumer data "to determine ways to help me improve my health" rather than "to buy my data to send me pre-paid credit card applications or catalogs full of stuff they want me to buy."