Data Brokers: What Are They and How To Stop Them in Their Tracks
Data brokers, operating in the shadows with little transparency or oversight, amass vast amounts of personal data, often without any obligation to disclose their practices. This hidden trade in personal information poses a growing threat to digital privacy, as data brokers freely offer our data to the highest bidders.
As Clive Humby aptly put it, “data is the new oil,” and organizations relentlessly seek our data to enhance their marketing strategies and influence consumer choices. To shed some light on their practices, we will take a look at what they are, what they do, and offer valuable guidance on protecting your personal data.
What are data brokers?
Just as crude oil is extracted from the earth, personal data gushes forth from our online activities, harvested by tech giants, app developers, and retailers, often with our consent tucked away in terms of service agreements. This raw data is then refined by data brokers, specialized companies that purchase information from tech companies and gather it from various sources, creating a detailed profile of individuals, including details such as their religion, address, and shopping habits.
This information is then sold to third parties, enabling them to target and profile consumers with uncanny precision. The crucial concern lies in the lack of awareness among individuals whose data is being transacted. Data brokers are the shadowy actors in this data-driven age, operating behind the scenes and underlining the pressing issue of data control and privacy.
What do data brokers know about you?
Data brokers leave no stone unturned when it comes to building a comprehensive profile of you. They kick things off with the essentials: your name, contact information, and where you reside. From there, they delve deeper, uncovering your age, birthdate, gender, occupation, and whether you have children. But they don’t stop at the surface; they also explore your hobbies, your online interests, your shopping preferences, your educational background, and even your current health status.
They can unearth sensitive information, including your social security number, homeowner or renter status, marital status, medical condition, net worth, political affiliations, and deeply ingrained beliefs. Furthermore, data brokers are privy to your preferences, the products you like, and your consumption habits, from the types of devices you use to the shows and movies you watch. They also gain insights into your social circle, who your contacts, friends, and family are, where and when you travel, and the modes of transportation you prefer.
This trove of data enables data brokers and their clients to predict your behavior, from your likelihood of taking risks to your ice cream flavor preferences. They can even infer your political affiliations, predict your weekend plans, and assess your health status, leaving you with a sense of eerie intrusion into your private life.
How do they harvest your information?
Data brokers employ a diverse range of methods to collect information from both online and offline sources. They tap into publicly available records, such as marriage licenses and property sales, for offline data. Online, they use tracking cookies, browser fingerprinting, web and email beacons, IP address tracking, and customer data platforms on ecommerce sites. These methods enable data brokers to compile a detailed profile of your online and offline activities, preferences, and behavior.
How to stop data brokers in their tracks
To thwart data brokers and safeguard your privacy, follow these steps: Configure privacy settings on your devices, apps, and browsers to disable tracking. Only grant app access to location services, camera, and microphone when necessary. Utilize a privacy-focused browser and a VPN for public Wi-Fi.
In addition, learn how to stop spam and put these key principles into practice. For instance, a good idea is to add your number to the Do Not Call registry, report calls from unknown callers and those you did not grant permission to call you, and unsubscribe from email lists that have no business emailing you. Simply put, you should adopt a proactive approach to safeguarding your privacy and do what you can on your end to ensure your rights are protected.
Data brokers are looking to turn a profit using questionable data gathering tactics, most of which, unfortunately, still fall in the legal domain. Therefore, the only way to fight them is to familiarize yourself with what they are and make sure you don’t make their job too easy.