Information Brokers: Who has my data?
March 1, 2011 | By Damon Armour, IT Security Officer, contributing writer
Privacy has been a hot topic over the last 10 years. As more personal information has become digitized, it has become more accessible. A careful balance must be maintained to provide individuals a reasonable level of personal privacy. The issue with privacy is that the scales tend to shift, depending on the tolerance level of the day. There always will be a need for a certain degree of publicly available information, yet the abuse of that information can (should) be a cause of concern. Information brokers have created a marketplace to use our personal information as a source of income. This information can be retrieved through the correlation of public information and through the information that individuals release to the Internet (i.e. social media/networking). Becoming more informed on this subject can help reduce some of the confusion on “Who has my data?”
In January 2011, ITS worked with local news station WJBF on a story about the website Spokeo.com. Spokeo is an information broker that pulls in publically available records and includes information available via social networking sites. Spokeo offers search criteria such as name, email, phone number, etc. If Spokeo has information on an individual, it will supply some of the details for free. However to gain further information, Spokeo will charge a fee. When showing the search results to students on campus, most were surprised at the availability of the information. Another concern was that some of the information was inaccurate. The complete story, including video, can be found at www2.wjbf.com/news/2011/jan/25/3/private-information-public-spokeo-website-ar-1383842/
So what is an information broker? The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) defines information brokers as:
A growing number of websites sell (or give freely) the personal information of individuals. These online information brokers (also known as data brokers or data vendors) gather personal information from many sources including white pages listings (directory assistance), publicly available sources, and public records. Some information brokers also offer the ability to conduct “social searches,” which gather information by searching public profiles on social networking sites.
What information are brokers collecting and making available to others in a consolidated format?
- Full name
- Physical address
- Marital status
- Telephone number
- Birth date, Children (including ages), approximate income level
- Mortgage information, property values
Where do the information brokers get all this information on individuals?
Public Record sources such as:
- Phone books
- Court files
- Tax assessments
- Business licenses
- Voting records
- Marriage / divorce records
- DMV records
What can you do to protect your information? Unfortunately, there is no one single act that will help conceal information that you feel is not appropriate to be public. In the past, most of these records were held in paper form, which did not lend itself to mass reproduction and easy accessibility. With the advent of the Internet and electronic databases, this information has moved into a much larger scope.
Some suggestions to limit your exposure include:
- Do not list in the phone book.
- Ensure proper privacy settings are enabled within social media/networking tools (Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, etc.).
- Contact local, state, and federal representatives.
- Complain to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and your state’s Attorney General’s Office.
- Opt out of information broker listings (the PRC has an expansive list of information brokers and opt out details at: www.privacyrights.org/online-information-brokers-list
Privacy rights are vital to our country and society. Awareness of the subject will increase the ability of individuals to work with the government and businesses on protecting their privacy. Many companies today are trying to push the boundaries to gain an understanding on what is an acceptable norm with regard to information sharing. Companies such as Facebook and Google are big players in the business of data mining (1). Individuals may not fully know how their information is being utilized, but they do have a degree of control on how much is made available. The key is providing only what is necessary to only the appropriate parties.
(1) Wikipedia defines data mining as “the process of extracting patterns from large data sets by combining methods from statistics and artificial intelligence with database management.”
- Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC): www.privacyrights.org/
- PRC Information Brokers list: www.privacyrights.org/online-information-brokers-list
- WJBF – Spokeo.com story: www2.wjbf.com/news/2011/jan/25/3/private-information-public-spokeo-website-ar-1383842/