60 Minutes: Data Brokers
Over the past year, many Americans have become more aware of online snooping by the government, which has raised questions and concerned about our privacy online. However, 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft pointed out that the private sector is also a threat to privacy, thanks to Data Brokers who collect and sell our personal information for a variety of profitable purposes. Some of that information is even sold by the government itself.
Some of this is consumer marketing, which has evolved thanks to the internet and e-commerce. This big industry is on the fringes of American business and has very little oversight, as 60 Minutes found in its report. Companies have been tracking potential and existing customers for years, through questions, surveys, credit card purchases, and voluntarily provided data (like your mailing address for a catalog).
These days, people are often more willing to volunteer private information on social media, which can be harvested, personalized, and sold. Companies might know your movements, habits, and friends. Julie Brill of the Federal Trade Commission thinks that private citizens have lost control. She said that dossiers are individualized to particular consumers with individually identifiable information that is aggregated and sold for a variety of uses.
60 Minutes: Acxiom Data Broker
It’s hard to even know the sheer number of companies that are in the Data Broker business, from internet advertisers to retailers and trade associations. Acxiom is one of the largest Data Brokers, which boasts an average of 1,500 pieces of information on 200 million American citizens.
The company is vague about its methods and customers, and it declined to be interviewed for 60 Minutes. Tim Sparapani has been following the industry for years, and has worked for Facebook in the past. He said that consumers have no idea what is being gathered and tracked about them. The list might include religious preferences, political affiliations, income, and medical data.
Sparapani said that you could purchase a list, by disease or malady, of consumers suffering from a particular condition or ailment, from any number of data brokers. Your purchase history can also help to pinpoint information that may even been available to a company where you are trying to get a job.
60 Minutes: Data Brokers Targeted Mailing Lists
Data Brokers have been off the radar for years, according to Sparapani, but 60 Minutes was able to find mailing lists for sale, from LGBT adults to patients with bipolar disorder and even consumers who are interested in getting out of debt or struggling with addiction.
Another firm offers lists of people who have been diagnosed or treated for STIs or purchased adult-themed entertainment or other products. Sparapani said that these lists are unregulated and have not even been known.
“The depths of this industry, the really darkest corners, have yet to be exposed to any light whatsoever,” he said. Kroft said that every small data point about us has become more valuable, and even retailers or service providers have learned that they can make money by sharing data about their customers and consumers, creating a new revenue stream.
60 Minutes: Online Browsing Click Stream
With so many consumers willing to share their private information and personal opinions online, Data Brokers have hit on a goldmine by matching all this incoming data. Take 5 Solutions runs over a dozen websites that let consumers share health and family stories. But they may not know that the information is really being collected and sold.
Another side of this business is rarely seen by consumers. Privacy consultant Ashkan Soltani showed 60 Minutes the software called Disconnect, developed by a former Google engineer, which can open your eyes to the tracking that happens on popular websites, such as the New York Times, where this investigation found a dozen third parties tracking data about site visits.
These companies place advertisements or track our behaviors through analytics, keeping track of things we are interested in. Even the 60 Minutes website from CBS News has these types of uninvited guests, which are allowed in by default in web browsers. Even your history is collected, stored, and shared; Soltani called it your Click Stream.
60 Minutes: Data Matching & Personalized Advertising
The more data that these types of companies collect, the more relevant and personalized they can make the advertising we can see throughout the web. OKCupid, the online dating site, collects personal information, which can drill deep into personal questions about religion, drug use habits, and much more.
Though you don’t have to give your real name, your data can be matched via your IP address and become part of your profile. Some firms simply specialize in matching up pieces of your data puzzle to help form and shape a profile of you. The fine print on websites like OKCupid is your only warning about what is really going on behind the scenes, and that your information is up for grabs.
Remember the mobile game Angry Birds or the Brightest Flashlight Free app? These popular free downloads have been used to track the location and habits of users who perhaps unwittingly downloaded them.
60 Minutes: Smartphone Tracking Device
Brill said your smartphone is just a tracking device. Geolocation data is a hot property among Data Brokers, and she said that this information shows who you are, where you go, where you shop, and much more about your personal history.
Path, a social app for the iPhone, was also caught stealing users’ contact information without consent. This included Facebook usernames, Twitter handles, birthdates, and many more details about your friends and family.
The FTC is one of a handful of agencies who have authority in this type of work. It fined Path $800,000 for deceptive trade practices. Brill told 60 Minutes she wants more oversight and transparency from these companies, wishing that they would make personal data available to consumers so they can challenge inaccuracies or opt out.
60 Minutes: Consumer Privacy Dark Underside?
We don’t know who the Data Brokers are or what to do to fight back. The Senate Commerce Committee is working on legislation after a yearlong investigation, though Chairman Jay Rockefeller said they are being stonewalled by three big names: Acxiom, Epsilon, and Experian.
Bryan Kennedy, the CEO of Epsilon, said he took offense at Rockefeller’s categorization of these companies as “the dark underside of American life.” His company tracks billions of transactions and other data points. He prefers to think of his company as a marketing firm.
Kennedy said that his company’s website can give you a glimpse into the information it collects about you individually. His company said he has given the congressional committee plenty of information, but thinks they are engaged in political theater.
60 Minutes: Data Brokers Regulation?
He does not believe that his industry needs more oversight or regulation. He said that the government should focus on those who are abusing the practice of data collection. “We think that self-regulation has been very effective,” Kennedy said. “We’re not hearing a lot of discussion from consumers.”
Kennedy told 60 Minutes he was surprised that consumers are so willing to volunteer their personal, private information, something he does not personally engage in. “I think that consumers out to understand that the internet is an advertising medium,” he said.
The Direct Marketing Association agrees, and its members include Google and Facebook, two companies who do not sell the information they collect, instead keeping it for their own internal use.