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Data Brokers

creepy data broker graphicThey are known by many names – information brokers, data brokers, data vendors, data resellers – and they all do the same thing: regularly collect, process, and sell sensitive personal information about hundreds of millions of Americans.

Where Do Data Brokers Get Their Data?

The data in your data broker files is compiled from (1) public records, (2) publicly available information, and (3) nonpublic information.

Public Record Data

Public records are increasingly published online and are available to anyone. These records include birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, property records, bankruptcies, liens, judgments, business ownership and professional listings, voter registrations, and voting records.

Publicly Available Data

This type of information is available publicly through sources other than public records and includes telephone directories, subscription lists, business directories, newspapers, etc. This data now also includes website tracking data and other website data, such as data from social networking sites, résumé sites, and online forums.

Nonpublic Data

This information is gathered from private or proprietary sources, including information individuals give to private businesses when they buy products or services (names, addresses, dates of birth, credit card numbers, and even Social Security Numbers); consumer transactions data; cell phone records; information from credit, employment, and insurance applications; and credit agency file header information.

What Data Is In Your File?

Your file most likely has at least your full name and aliases, date of birth, marital status, names of relatives, physical address, address history, telephone number(s), criminal convictions, credit history, bankruptcies, liens, judgments, and how much you owe on your mortage (if you have one). Your file could even include your childrens’ ages. What information is in your record varies because what is available in pubic records varies from state to state and county to county.

In addition, if you share information on social networks or other websites, participate in surveys, have filled out an application of any kind, or have given out any of your personal information in any way in any form online or offline, your file could also include your hometown, relationship status, Social Security Number, political and religious views, personal and family photos, online and offline contact information, gender, sexual preference, favorite books, education, medical conditions, and employment history.

Who Regulates Data Brokers?

Data brokers compile these in-depth digital dossiers of personal information about you without your permission and it is completely legal.

Although the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FRCA) of 1970 should offer some protections for consumer data held by data brokers, it doesn’t.

There are no laws that currently limit the type or amount of information that data brokers can collect. It is only when data brokers have a data breach or act unfairly or deceptively that they get into trouble with the government (US Search, Inc., Reed Elsevier Inc. and Seisint, Inc., TJX Companies, Inc., and ChoicePoint Inc.).

There have been efforts to legislate the data broker industry in the past, but the bills have been unsuccessful. You can view bill for the current Congress here.

Check out this video to see what data is collected by data brokers and how the data is used.

You can opt out of some (not all) of the data broker databases.

WARNING: This is a frustrating and time-consuming task. As noted by Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, “Personal information that has been removed from a particular database may be re-posted online at a later date when the company downloads a new batch of information. You would need to repeat the opt-out process again if your information is reposted.”

In other words, removing your data from data broker files is a Sisyphean task because these companies often re-post data when it is updated, and the onus is on you to track which companies are doing this and to opt out again when you find your data has been reposted.

The following video shows an example of some types of opt outs:

Unfortunately, the data in these files is not always correct. Because the data is gathered from far and wide and processed and packaged by machine filters, sometimes the files contain horrible errors.

The FTC and state Attorneys General will not do anything about an individual complaint. However, they will do something if they receive enough complaints:

There are two pending lawsuits against data broker Spokeo in federal court in California.

In an attempt to stop websites from “history sniffing,” two plaintiffs filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. This type of website data is often added to data broker files.