Above: Image from article by Todd Denis
Though data breaches and debates about government surveillance are frequently in the news, many consumers aren’t aware of data brokers’ impact on privacy.
What Is a Data Broker?
Data brokers are companies that collect consumers’ personal information and resell or share that information with others. In other words, your data is their product.
How Do They Get Your Data?
As it turns out, a lot of data is simply there for the taking. Following are the types of data that are available to data brokers and the ways in which data brokers obtain your data:
- They obtain personal information such as your name, ethnicity, age, education level, income, occupation, commute times, geographic information and address from federal government sources (such as the U.S. Census Bureau and Postal Service) and from state and local governments.
- They crawl social media sites such as LinkedIn, where privacy settings are often forgotten or lowered.
- They purchase consumer data–down to the transaction–including payment types from commercial sources.
- Oh, and they swap data with each other.
Despite the very personal nature and massive amount of data that is collected, many consumers are pretty much unaware that their data is being collected.
How Do They Monetize Your Data?
The Federal Trade Commission report Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability describes three basic types of products that are created from your data:
- People search. These products are websites through which users can search for publicly available information about consumers.
- Marketing. These products allow companies to learn more about their customers.
- Risk mitigation. These products help clients confirm a person’s identity and can help clients identify or reduce fraud.
What Can You Do?
After reading the FTC report, which only studied nine top data broker companies, I became curious about what the larger landscape of data brokers looks like for everyday consumers like you and me. I had questions. Which type of data broker is the most common? What are their privacy policies? Do many data brokers offer an opt-out option? If they do offer an opt-out option, can it be completed easily?
To answer these questions, I created a dataset of aggregated information on more than 300 data brokers. From that dataset, I built the below interactive data visualization tool that you can use to:
- Filter and display information about data brokers by company, company type and whether each company provides an opt-out option.
- Access each company’s website to learn more about the company’s practices and, if available, privacy policies.
- Access each company’s opt-out page, if available.
I hope that you find this tool useful for learning about data brokers, their policies and your options.
Note: I aggregated this data from multiple sources and cleaned it to the best of my ability. If you find any discrepancies, please let me know.