Last night, CNN’s OutFront had the first-ever interview with the CEO of the biggest company you’ve never heard of: Acxiom, Inc., a data broker that collects and sells personal information on 96% of Americans.
Abine was in the story as a privacy advocate to represent the side of the consumer, and I–Sarah, your faithful blogger and privacy analyst–talked to reporter Ed Lavandera. You can check out the story here.
What are data brokers?
Every single day, companies you’ve never heard of are collecting and storing information about you. They’re commonly known as “data brokers” or “people search sites.”
Intelius, Spokeo, Acxiom, and BeenVerified are just some of almost 200 data brokers, and that number continues to rise. These data brokers have personal information like your age, estimated net worth, and religious and political views, and they combine that with contact information like your address and phone number, as well as photos you’ve posted.
They get it from sources you can’t control, like drivers’ licenses and birth certificates, and things you voluntarily give out, like Facebook photos, supermarket rewards cards, and warranties.
All of this information adds up to create a virtual you–a second you. And this “virtual you” is being sold to anybody who wants it–individuals, companies, hiring managers–for only a few dollars. Most people realize that basic information is out there, but they’re shocked to learn how many personal details are up for sale.
What’s the problem with data brokers?
People are using data broker information to make important decisions about the real you based on the virtual you, decisions like your credit score, your insurance rates, and even whether you get a job. What’s worse, this data is frequently inaccurate.
Recently, a Massachusetts woman wasn’t hired for a pharmacy job after a background check had incorrectly reported that she had 14 felony convictions. Her record was clean, but the data broker providing the report messed up and linked someone else’s name to hers. It’s a major problem when employers are judging people based on these background checks, yet people can’t respond to or even see the content of their own files.
Besides not getting hired, there are other dangers of having so much personal information out there, ranging from things as benign as embarrassment or unsolicited marketing, to as severe as identity theft or stalking.
People always ask us, “how is this legal?” The data has always been public, but it was in government storage that was much less accessible than a website. The problem is that these sites are taking advantage of out-of-date public records laws. These laws were built around paper documents in regulated storage: you used to have to go to a town clerk’s office to see them.
But with the advent of the Internet, they’re one click away: records have become super-public, and they’re far more accessible and visible than they’ve ever been. And unlike the government, these private data brokers do almost no oversight to make sure the info they’re selling about you is accurate.
Many data brokers offer the ability to conceal your information from the public, but they don’t make it easy. There are hundreds of different data brokers and they all have different, time-consuming removal procedures. Some don’t even offer any way to do it.
Some require faxes, others emails, others certified mail, creating a long line of hoops you’ll have to jump through to get your data removed. Surprisingly, you have to provide them with more information just to have yours removed, like a copy of your government-issued photo ID and your addresses going back 20 years.
And even after all that, your data repeatedly pops back up on these sites as you naturally leave a digital trail out in the world. It’s unrealistic to expect people with busy lives and responsibilities to spend dozens of hours removing and re-removing their info from all these different sites.
That’s why we created DeleteMe. With DeleteMe, we do all the hard work of removing your data from the biggest data broker sites, and a personal DeleteMe advisor consistently scours them for your info, making sure it stays gone for good.
What you can do about data brokers
First, realize that your data is yours and you don’t have to give it out every time someone asks for it. Whether you’re at the mall or the supermarket or registering for an online account, give out as little info as you have to. Use an email alias or a different date of birth.
Second, if a company isn’t honoring your privacy requests, report them: go to the Federal Trade Commission’s simple online complaint form, your state’s attorney general, the BBB, or write a negative online review.
Third, you should also remove your info from data broker websites that already have it. We wrote a free do-it-yourself guide to removing your info from the biggest data broker sites, and we have a paid option called DeleteMe. DeleteMe is a customized subscription service that removes personal data like address, email, and age from data broker websites, like Spokeo.com and others. Plain and simple–it makes you harder to find online.
At Abine our business is user privacy, and we support measures that give people more control over how their data is collected, stored, shared, and sold. We’ve worked hard to support that goal, from filing FTC complaints against data brokers, to submitting public comments to Congress about privacy concerns, to creating innovative privacy products and services.
What’s in the future for data brokers?
In February, the Obama administration called for a consumer privacy bill of rights and specifically said they’re cracking down on data brokers. The Federal Trade Commission has said so as well. For example, in June, the Federal Trade Commission fined Spokeo $800,000 for selling personal information to hiring managers. Data brokers aren’t allowed to sell consumer data for things like hiring and housing unless they uphold strict privacy and accuracy standards, which Spokeo wasn’t doing.
The FTC has also called for data brokers to create a universal opt-out similar to the Do Not Call registry, and we agree. We think people want, and need, a simple, one-stop website where they can see all the info that data brokers have about them and remove it from being publicly displayed with one action.
Congress also needs to update public record laws for the realities of today’s digital world. But government action can be slow, so more consumers are taking privacy into their own hands and using services like DeleteMe today.