Companies can buy info on your health, political affiliations, financial stability, and more. Here's how to keep data brokers in the dark.
Data brokers store personal information about almost every single American consumer–and there’s usually very little you can do to see, correct, or delete your file. In fact, the companies that sell your personal data may know more about you than your own family does. That’s Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Edith Ramirez’s striking conclusion about a new government study on the data broker industry.
Brokers collect a wide swath of data about your buying habits, online behavior, home, finances, health, and more, according to the FTC, including this information:
How do companies know that? You might be revealing details about your private life without realizing it. Whenever you post information online, register on a website, shop, or submit a public record like a mortgage or voter registration, data brokers can collect information, and then turn around and sell what they have on you to advertisers and other companies (like risk mitigation and people-finder services).
Data brokers also make guesses about you and your interests based on other information they have, then sort you into groups, called “segments.” That way, advertisers can buy lists of consumers who might be interested in particular products.
Privacy advocates fear that companies might use personal information–and particularly demographic information–to discriminate against certain consumers. For example, the FTC warns that lenders could target vulnerable groups with subprime loans, or insurers could decide that people with adventurous hobbies are high-risk.
The industry line is that those concerns are purely speculative and that some customers appreciate targeted ads. “One interesting thing about this [FTC] report is that after thousands of pages of documentation submitted over the two years of thorough inquiry by the FTC, the report finds no actual harm to consumers, and only suggests potential misuses that do not occur,” Peggy Hudson, senior vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, said in a statement.
The FTC is urging Congress to give you access to your data and the ability to opt-out of data broker services. In the meantime, here are a seven easy things you can do to limit what you share.
1. Delete Cookies
The first step towards protecting your privacy online is to delete “cookies” from your browser, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Cookies let websites collect information about what else you do online. Most browsers have privacy settings that let you block third-party cookies. But it’s not fool proof. Stephens warns that trackers are now switching from cookies to a new kind of targeting called fingerprinting, which is much harder to avoid.
2. Log Out of Social Media Sites While You Browse the Web
Another simple strategy, says Stephens, is to use different browsers for different online services. That will limit how much information any one site can collect about your web activity. For example, he says, “don’t go to a shopping site while you are logged in to Facebook.”
3. Change Your Smartphone’s Privacy Settings
Advertisers can also track you when you’re browsing the web on your mobile device, warns Gautam Hans, attorney at the Center for Democracy and Technology. You can change the privacy settings on your iPhone or Android device to limit ad tracking.
4. Skip Store Loyalty Cards
Data brokers collect information from the real world too, Hans says. It’s impossible to limit brokers’ access to some kinds of personal information, like public records. But if privacy is really important to you, decline offers for store loyalty cards–a major way retailers gather information about your buying habits. The downside? You may miss out on discounts.
5. Employ Advanced Online Tools
For the especially privacy-conscious, there are a number of online tools that can ratchet up your defenses. Some browser add-ons, like Disconnect.me, help you see and block tracking requests as you spend time online. Instead of Google, you can try the DuckDuckGo search engine, which promises not to collect or share personal information. Or use the browser Tor, which lets you go online anonymously. But these extra measures may not be a good fit for everyone. Some websites don’t load properly when you use anonymous browsing, Hans notes.
6. Opt-out of Data Broker Collection—Whenever Possible
Ultimately, it’s difficult to get data brokers to stop collecting information about you, or even find out how much information brokers already have. The FTC concluded that to date, “consumer opt-out requests may not be completely effective.” But one major data broker made waves last year when it launched a portal that allows you to access your data and opt-out of certain services. Check AboutTheData.com to see what information Acxiom has stored on you.
7. Do a Digital Check-up
Many popular sites like Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter offer privacy controls, so use them. Every once in a while, check your settings and see if you’re happy with how you are limiting the ways your data is used. “What’s important is that people have the opportunity to meaningfully consent,” Hans says.