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:
• Your name (and previously used names), age, birthday, and gender
• Your address (and previous addresses), phone numbers, and email addresses
• Your Social Security and driver’s license numbers
• Your children’s ages and birthdays
• Your height and weight
• Your race and ethnicity
• Your religion (based on your last name)
• What languages you speak
• Whether you’re married (and whether you’re a single parent)
• Who lives with you
• Your education level and occupation (or if you're retired)
• Bankruptcies, convictions for crimes, and tax liens
• Your state licenses–whether you hunt, fish, or have a professional license
• Your voter registration and political party
• The electronics you buy
• Your friends on social media
• How much you use the Internet and various social networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter
• Whether you use long distance calling services or mobile devices
• What kind of home you live in and how long you’ve lived there
• Your home loan amount, interest rate, and lender
• Your home’s listing price and market price
• How many rooms and bathrooms are in your home
• Whether you have a fireplace, garage, or pool
• What kinds of clothes you like
• What kinds of sporting events you attend
• The charities and causes you donate to
• Whether you gamble at casinos or buy lottery tickets
• Whether you’re a newlywed or pregnant
• The magazines and catalogs you subscribe to
• The media channels you use
• Whether you golf, ski, or camp
• Whether you own pets
• The celebrities, movies, music, and books you like
• Whether you have upscale retail cards
• The daytime TV you watch
• What credit cards you carry and your credit worthiness
• Whether you own stocks and bonds
• How many investment properties you own
• Your estimated income and your discretionary income
• Whether you have life insurance
• What car brands you prefer
• The make and model of your cars
• Whether you own a boat
• The most you’ve ever spent on travel
• Whether you’re a frequent flyer and your favorite airline
• Whether you own vacation property
• What kinds of vacations you take (including casino, time share, cruises or RV vacations)
• How you pay for things
• What kinds of food you buy
• How much you buy from “high-scale catalogs”
• What kinds of products you frequently buy
• Whether you buy women’s plus-sized clothing or men’s big & tall clothing
• Whether you search for ailments online
• Whether you or someone in your household smokes
• The drugs you buy over-the-counter
• Whether you wear contacts
• Whether you suffer from allergies
• Whether you have an individual health insurance plan
• Whether you’ve bought supplemental Medicare or Medicaid insurance
• Whether you buy weight loss supplements
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.