What are data brokers and why should I care?

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Abstract colorful visualization of data verticle shards staggered across a wide 16:9 aspect ratio

81% of the US public say that the potential risks they face because of data collection by businesses outweigh the benefits1. If you live in the US today, you likely feel the same.

Alright, listen up, I'm gonna tell you about data brokers and why you should give a damn. These companies gather tons of data about you from various sources like social media, online activity, and public records. Then they sell this data to other organizations or companies or even nosey individuals willing cough up their price. Supposedly you agree with all this when you accept the unreadable terms of service and privacy policies for each social media company you sign up for.

The data collected can include personal information such as names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, social security numbers, and even purchasing history and behavior patterns.

And it's not just harmless targeted ads we're talking about here. They're collecting sensitive information like your name, address, phone number, and purchasing habits, which can be used to make significant decisions about you, like if you're eligible for loans or employment. And guess what? You probably don't even know it's happening!

That isn't even the worst part. When these data brokers don't secure your data properly, hackers and other bad actors could get their hands on it, leaving you vulnerable to identity theft and fraud like in 2018 when one data broker (Exactis) leaked 340 million people’s information to the public internet through an unsecure server. Many other examples exist including the infamous Equifax breach.

Wait, there's more! Some data brokers try to sell your data by revealing some of your information (such as your current address or phone number) to encourage people to purchase their full profile of all the data they have collected about you. If you are being stalked, harassed, or just want to manage your personally identifying information online, you need to know how to get this information scrubbed on this public websites that show up in online searches for your name, usually prominently.

So here's the deal: you need to stay on top of these data brokers, know how to request they expunge your data from each one, and take action periodically. Going forward you need to review privacy policies, opt-out of data collection when possible, and use strong passwords and other security measures to protect yourself online. Don't let these companies profit off your personal info without your knowledge or consent.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Here are some shortcuts if you can afford the price:

  • Services exist that will monitor your data data broker databases and continually request your data to be removed. I will review a few of these in a later blog post.
  • Find privacy-concerned non-profits that explain in simple English how to read Privacy Policies and why like this one from PRIG titled How to read a privacy policy.