What Data Brokers Know About You

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This year, industry experts estimate the data analytics and business intelligence market to cross $200 billion. The data economy has taken over nearly every part of daily life. And with rapid advances in technology, ensuring online data privacy has become even more challenging for the ordinary person.

Data brokers are today making a staggering amount of money by gathering, organizing and selling personal data without your knowledge. A tremendous amount of information is gathered continuously using various sources such as online search activities, social media profiles, subscriptions, media reports, and public records like property and vehicle records. They are further extracted from offline activities such as purchases from brick-and-mortar stores.

Personal data are also exchanged among companies like retailers and social media platforms. And data brokers sell these data to large organizations for various purposes. Moreover, governments and government agencies use them for activities like national security and migration.

The bottom line is billions of personal data exchange hands every day largely unknown to you. These can be broadly classified into 3 categories based on how they are primarily used.

People Searches

People search sites like Nuwber represent one of the key sectors that data brokers cater to. These websites help carry out background searches for personal and commercial purposes. For example, they can be used to verify details of a new recruit, to check the history of a potential tenant or even to find a lost friend. These websites have become popular tools for background verifications and reverse searches among individuals and organizations alike.

Their free services usually offer basic details like the address, phone number, email address, age, marital status, and education. However, at a small fee, they could provide a more in-depth report of an individual. This means data brokers provide them with a vast range of personal and sensitive information with more comprehensive data. These could include an individual’s employment history, property ownership details, credit history, mortgages, loans, lien records as well as details of family, friends, neighbors, and associates. They can even cover traffic violations, police records, and criminal history.

Advertising and marketing

Companies such as Oracle-owned Datalogix specialize in aggregating and organizing data for advertising and marketing purposes.

Marketers use segregated data so that they can customize how they advertise and promote products to you. This means they need specific customer profiles categorized based on geographic, demographic and psychographic factors. For example, age, gender, ethnicity, income levels, and education are all important for marketers to profile potential customers.

They can also use data gathered from social media profiles, browser activities, spending patterns and the likes. These help identify your preferences and the most personal details such as whether you are looking to buy a home, expecting a baby or trying to lose weight. All this information helps them to customize what and how they offer to each individual.

If you have ever Googled air ticket prices to a particular city, then you may have noticed ads for nearby hotels popping up mysteriously. Well, now you know how that is done. 

Credit and risk assessments

Companies such as Experian collects data for credit and risk assessment purposes. They can aggregate data such as utility bill payments, credit card activities, mobile phone payments, loans and debts, rent payments, and bankruptcy filings. They can even check mortgages and property ownerships as well as criminal records.

In addition to the above, certain types of personal data could also be harvested for criminal activities like financial and identity theft. These cybercriminals could gather personal information such as social security numbers, email addresses, phone numbers, bank account details and passwords. They could collect a large amount of sensitive data through social media profiles. For instance, a Facebook post of how you celebrated your birthday is enough to reveal not only your date of birth but whom you are friends with and your favorite restaurant.

These cybercriminals can also access personal information by hacking into databases of data brokers and aggregators. But it is not just criminal activity that could compromise data privacy. Other activities such as marketing and advertising could also have a similar effect. It is largely due to the lack of regulations and policies governing data privacy and security.

This means activities by data aggregators can place your personal information at great risk. It is especially risky when you are completely unaware of the amount of data that is collated about you. And this lack of understanding of and control over what data is collated, sold and used is exactly what makes protecting your online privacy a top priority.

So, what can you do about it? The simplest thing to do is to be cautious of what information you divulge both online and offline. Whether you are putting up a post on Facebook or signing up for a loyalty card at your local retailer, be mindful of the repercussions. There is no guarantee of how far that information will travel and what it will be used for. Therefore, the less information you reveal, the fewer data that will be available for others to access without your knowledge.

It is true that this will not completely prevent data brokers from gathering your data. This is because there will always be public records over which you will have little control. However, being cautious of what data you disclose will certainly help minimize unnecessary and sensitive personal data from getting into the wrong hands.

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