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What Do Data Brokers Know About You?

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Posted on Mar 10, 2013

By Lois Beckett, ProPublica

This report first appeared on ProPublica.

Data companies are scooping up enormous amounts of information about almost every American. They sell information about whether you’re pregnant or divorced or trying to lose weight, about how rich you are and what kinds of cars you have.

Regulators and some in Congress have been taking a closer look at these so-called data brokers — and are beginning to push the companies to give consumers more information and control over what happens to their data. 

But many people still don’t even know that data brokers exist

Here’s a look at what we know about the consumer data industry. 

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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 paystub 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. 


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