Most of us, I’d wager to say, understand that we’re being mined for data in a variety of ways. We carry phone GPS units in our pockets that track our movements, our purchases, what we like and dislike; our rhetoric is being filtered when we comment on products and groups and people. We’re now paying with our phones, and finding where our favorite items are and at the cheapest price. The data collecting is staggering when you consider the amount of information that we output, vs the algorithms that crunch the information to turn your digital life into something “listable” and able to be commodified.
The last thing Seay remembers buying at OfficeMax since his daughter’s death last February is some paper.
“Why do they have that?” Seay said of the information about his daughter’s death. “What do they need that for? How she died, when she died? It’s not really personal, but looking at them, it is. That’s not something they would ever need.”
Seay was the victim of two things: a lack of proofing, and he was a commodity of the information market—a data broker had turned over generous amounts of meta data obtained from the Internet to OfficeMax, which then used the names and information to mail out discount offers. Whether or not they were targeting Seay because of his vulnerable situation and probable emotional distress is purely speculative. But they did acknowledge receiving the “mailing information from a third party.”
What or who is considered a data broker? According to the FTC,
The reports from the FTC and the Senate Commerce Committee both said data brokers group consumers together into categories for the use of marketers.
The FTC said the categories include “Plus-size Apparel,” “African-American Professional,” “Biker/Hell’s Angels,” “Allergy Sufferer,” “Exercise – Sporty Living” and “Working Class Mom.”
The Senate Commerce Committee report cited categorizations such as “Burdened by Debt: Singles,” “X-tra Needy,” “Credit Crunched: City Families,” “Ethnic Second-City Strugglers,” “Fragile Families” and “Small Town Shallow Pockets.”
But it gets worse than being labeled. It’s even worse than your companies that you shop at selling off your information for money. Also according to the L.A. Times:
…a leading privacy advocate told Congress that professional data brokers are selling lists of rape victims, people with HIV or AIDS and even police officers’ home addresses to marketers.
“Few people know that data brokers exist, and beyond that, few know what they do,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum.
“Even a knowledgeable consumer lacks the tools to exercise any control over his or her data held by a data broker,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that the data is about the consumer. The data broker has all the rights, and the consumer has none.”
Data suggests that 2-3% of data brokers that illegally obtain your information are ever prosecuted. Businesses are only required to disclose that your stolen data has been compromised if they are sure that your data has been stolen via an internal audit. And who runs the audits most of the time? The companies that you shop. Consumerism begets transparency. Being interactive and social online equates to being part of a darker world of consumerism where you have no say, no bargaining rights, no return or royalty, and no understanding of what information is being traded.
This is why I elect to use Tor now. At first I used to be ambivalent about my privacy. My privacy concerned whether or not I shared a photo on Facebook to immediate friends, or “friends of friends.” I tighten my controls and personal information at times. But the hard reality is that even my own privacy constraints are feeble, and my credit card information, my purchasing lists and data, and my government-accessible data is accessible. TheHill.com makes a very good point, explaining that when businesses and companies share information, they can instill new controls over you:
As an example … a healthcare company could charge customers more based on whether they purchase plus-sized clothing or items associated with a preexisting health condition.
Information: we want access to it. We want to share it on our own terms, but we also want to do in a free way, or the cheapest and most efficient way possible. I, personally, am going to treat myself as my own commodity. Privacy is, from my vantage point, an impossibility at this point—even if I were to go off the grid. But if I treat my information as my own product, and protect that information the best that I can, and be proactive with who I deal with, then I’ve made a small step.
But I think it’s time we made a collection of meta data on data brokers, and sell off their information to the public domain.