4 Nov 2010

Big Broker is Watching You


Have you ever looked yourself up online and wondered how companies you have never heard of know your name? Where did they get your information and what are they using it for?

Data brokers were the subject of a recent article in The Wall Street Journal’s “What they Know” series on online privacy. Data brokers collect personal information from various sources such as public registries, telephone listings, product registration cards, and, notably, online social network sites and blogs.  The information is then compiled into profiles and sold – to marketing companies, to individuals through “people finder” websites, to fundraisers.

In the past, data brokers relied primarily on organizations like retailers, subscription services, payment processing companies and charitable organizations to share their customer information by renting or selling customer lists. The lists would typically include names and contact information together with attributes like income, age group, number of children, purchase history, and interests. Data brokers would combine these lists with information from other sources, like survey and census data, to generate specialized lists they would then sell to marketers.

Now that we spend more and more time in a digital world, data brokers are able to tap into a wealth of rich new data sources.  Vast amounts of customer information is being stored online. Public records, like court decisions, no longer live in musty filing cabinets but can be accessed by anyone anywhere with the click of a mouse.  Our actions online – where we go, what we do – are tracked and recorded.

And then there is the information that we voluntarily share on social networking sites, blogs, chats and other social media services. Data brokers say this information has been made public and therefore should be free for the taking. Privacy advocates argue that combining and repurposing data exposes individuals in ways they may not have anticipated or consented to. Why do Canadians chose to reveal personal information online? Privacy by obscurity is a theme we at OPC often hear when we ask that question. “I’m not a celebrity so why would anyone be interested in what I post?” Data brokers are interested because collecting and selling your information is how they generate revenue.

The implications of having so much of our personal information out in the ether are only beginning to be understood. Industry practices are not transparent and the average person knows little about companies that routinely harvest online information.  We have seen reports of information gathered from blogs and chats being used to help determine creditworthiness. But would we even know if that happened to us? And would we know how to stop it?

Many of these companies are based in the U.S., where consumers have to navigate a patchwork of laws and regulations that for some will mean being able to opt out of tracking or having information removed from brokers’ databases.  Here in Canada, we are more fortunate.  Canadian private sector privacy law gives individuals the right to see what information data brokers have about them, ask them to correct inaccurate information, and request that the information be deleted.  The only exception is contact information that appears in a public directory such as a telephone book.  American companies which operate in Canada are also subject to our privacy law. If, after contacting a data broker, you are not satisfied with the response, you can file a complaint with us.

You can also try to limit what information you willingly give away.  Be more selective when posting online, restrict your privacy settings, and think twice about filling out that customer satisfaction survey or warranty card. Stay vigilant and let us know if you come across practices that cause you concern.


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