Data miners collect more of your information than you know

A new federal report sheds light on the hidden world of data brokers.  These multi-billion dollar companies collect data on hundreds of millions of Americans, which they analyze, package, and sell without consumer permission or input. Data collected includes information on our incomes, shopping habits, pharmacy purchases, travel, and other aspects of our lives.

Specific examples of data broker industry practices include:

•    Target developed a pregnancy prediction model to enable the company to target marketing to expectant mothers. In one case, Target sent maternity and baby clothes coupons to the household of a teenager. These mailings alerted the girl’s father that she was pregnant before she had told him the news herself.

•    The travel website Orbitz reportedly showed costlier travel options to visitors whose browsers indicated they were using Mac computers, because this brand was assumed to be used by more affluent consumers.

•    Data broker InfoUSA had sold lists of consumers with titles such as “Suffering Seniors” to individuals who then used the lists to target elderly Americans with fraudulent sales pitches.

•    Equifax maintains approximately 75,000 individual data elements for creating marketing products. Information collected included consumer use of laxatives or yeast infection products; OB/GYN doctor visits within the last 12 months, and the number of whiskey drinks consumed in the past 30 days.

The report, “A Review of the Data Broker Industry: Collection, Use, and Sale of Consumer Data for Marketing Purposes” by the Office of Oversight and Investigations Majority Staff, was released on December 18, 2013.

The report finds: (1) data brokers collect a huge volume of detailed information on hundreds of consumers; (2) data brokers sell products that identify financially vulnerable consumers; (3) data brokers products provide information about consumer offline behavior to tailor online outreach by marketers; and (4) data brokers operate behind a veil of secrecy.

It is worth noting that since consumers are often not aware that data brokers hold their information, it is not clear how they would be aware whether they have opt-out rights, or how to exercise them.

As data brokers are creating increasingly detailed dossiers on millions of consumers, it is important that lawmakers continue vigorous oversight to assess the potential harms and benefits of evolving industry practices and to make sure appropriate consumer protections are in place. As consumers, we need to be aware and vigilant in protecting our privacy.

See the full report here: “A Review of the Data Broker Industry: Collection, Use, and Sale of Consumer Data for Marketing Purposes,” Office of Oversight and Investigations Majority Staff, December 18, 2013.

Also see: Data Miners Collect More Of Your Information Every Day; Good Luck Finding Out What They Know