We all know by this point that every time we make a move on the Internet, it’s being tracked somewhere. That’s unsettling enough for most of us. But what’s more unsettling than this is the idea of your personal information being used as a valuable commodity by companies known as “data brokers”. You may have heard this term before, but do you know what it means, and how these brokers operate?
The Basics: What are Data Brokers?
Just like the name suggests, data brokers are in the business of buying and selling data—usually personal information of anyone and everyone they can. They’re trying to understand more than just the basics—they want to track your habits, your milestones, and your buying preferences—they want to know as much as they can about your life.
You may be wondering—is this even legal? Turns out, it is, and it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Are There Different Kinds of Data Brokers?
While all data brokers collect information, some focus on specialized types of information, like life events (marriage, divorce, children, buying a house), purchasing preferences and history, demographics, and social media information.
The FTC has a few official categories for data brokers, depending on the types of information they specialize in:
Marketing Products: Selling information to help companies create targeted ads. This is the broadest category of data brokers.
Risk Mitigation Products: Selling information to help companies avoid fraud, mostly for organizations such as banks and government agencies.
People Search Products: Selling information to help people find information about others.
Where Do Data Brokers Get Your Information?
Everywhere. The places you shop, your social media presence, government agencies, basically anywhere they can track you digitally. Your information is a commodity, and unless you live totally “off the grid”, chances are, your data is being sold somewhere. Some data, such as medical records, are confidential, as these are explicitly protected by law, but most information is considered fair game.
Do You Interact Directly With Them?
Usually, the average person won’t be in contact with data brokers. They tend to be invisible, except in some of the disclaimers and waivers you sign, which often acknowledge that your information may be “shared”.
A lot of companies are aware of consumer suspicion of data brokers, however, and have an opposite disclaimer, along the lines of: “We’ll never sell or share your information”, a sentence most people love to read on the Internet.
What Can You Do To Stop The Collection of Private Data?
Currently, it’s not easy to tell what data brokers know about you or stop them from distributing your information at will. Agencies like the FTC are trying to jump start legislation to give consumers more control over their own information, but change comes slowly.
Despite all this, you’re not entirely powerless if you don’t like the idea of these data brokers knowing almost everything about you (as most of us don’t), there are a few things you can try to minimize the sharing and selling of your personal information, though they definitely won’t prevent all of this activity. “Opt out” programs offered by some brokers are difficult and convoluted to complete, and most of us don’t have the time to deal with that. Here are some options to try if you’re concerned about data brokers:
- Use your browser in incognito mode
- Try a VPN to cover up your IP address
- Install a browser plugin to reduce tracking
Do you have any experience with data brokers? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Susannah Bruck is a freelance blogger, editor, and ghostwriter. She has been putting her skills to use for clients since 2010, and enjoys working on formats ranging from blog posts to short stories and plays. You can find her at World Adventures