SPECIAL REPORT: Data Brokers

header_databroker_pk_v1On the scale of tech sleaziness, data brokers are often viewed as a smidge worse than patent trolls, but not quite as bad as Satan. They collect information on consumers, often from the Internet, and create cute package profiles of us all to sell to the highest bidder.

If you want them to stop collecting data on you, you have to manually opt out of each of their lists, at least in the United States. Even after you’ve been removed from a data broker’s list, there is a good chance that you’ll reappear on it after a few months, by accident or by intent. At this point in the United States, federal law does not require data brokers to offer an opt-out to consumers.

“Data brokers are a largely unregulated industry that has caused many consumers confusion, frustration, and a sense of powerlessness,” says Rainey Reitman, director of activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a tech civil-rights advocacy group.

Privacy advocates like Reitman soon could see their dream of tighter regulations on data brokers change. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to limit how Internet service providers, the companies that you pay to connect your computer to the Internet, can collect and share their customer data.

ISPs see nearly all unencrypted consumer traffic, from the websites you visit to the apps you use on your phone. Regulation could force them to adopt a model in which they share the data of only those who have opted in. The current model is opt-out.

At the center of the debate over how ISPs slice, dice, and share their customer data are the data brokerage firms that know everything about you—your favorite soap to your most recent medical diagnosis—largely because of your shopping habits, your Internet activity, and your neighborhood’s demographics.

Stuart Pratt, chief executive of the Consumer Data Industry Association, says that because the United States is “highly dependent” on consumer spending, kneecapping consumer data collection and sharing would slow economic growth.

“Opt-in is so severe that it shuts down a lot of good commerce,” Pratt says. “These technologies have been effective at helping even small businesses reach their customers.”

The Parallax this week is looking at how data brokers provide analytical fuel to much of the U.S. economy. Contributing writer Kristin Burnham today explores just how much data brokers actually know about you. She also outlines how they get this information and to whom they’re selling it. Graphic designer Pinguino Kolb on Wednesday illustrates the relationships between you, data brokers, government agencies, and marketers.

And Kristin on Thursday offers a helpful guide for readers who want to see and clean up the information data brokers have collected about them—and opt out of other collection and marketing of their data.

Thank you for reading, and thank you to Kristin and Pinguino for contributing to our latest special report. We welcome direct feedback via social media. You can also reach me at seth@the-parallax.com.

Seth Rosenblatt

Editor, The Parallax