Who knows more about you than your own family and friends?
According to a scathing report put out by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission yesterday, the answer could be a corporate entity you have never even heard of.
The report details the practices of nine major data brokers, the largely unregulated behind-the-scenes firms that collect, aggregate, and sell data about the details of our lives to marketers, banks, insurance providers and others, almost always without consumer knowledge. Just one of the companies studied holds information on more than 1.4 billion consumer transactions and 700 billion “data elements,” the FTC says.
It’s hard to comprehend just how much these data brokers know about individuals until you see a list. They also use their data to create consumer profiles that typecast people into categories that are useful for companies, such as “Expectant Parent,” “Diabetes Interest,” and “Fragile Families.”
Here are a couple of the more weird, surprising, and concerning examples of data collection, from the FTC report:
- Demographic: Weight; Height; Ethnicity; “Work at Home” flag; Single parents with children; Employed: Blue-collar occupation.
- Court and public record: Voting registration and party affiliation; Marriage licenses
- Home and neighborhood: Number of baths, rooms, garages, pools, and fireplaces in your home; Rent price; Home value; Move date and length of residence; Neighborhood criminal, demographic, and business data
- Financial: Ability to afford products; Recent mortgage borrower; Estimated income; Net worth indicator; Loans
- Health: Ailment and prescription online search propensity; Over the counter drug purchases; Buy disability insurance; Weight loss and supplements; Reported interest in health topics including: diabetes, arthritis, orthopedics
- Purchase behavior: Amount spent on goods; Type of food and entertainment purchased; “Novelty Elvis” shopper; Guns and ammunition; Christian religious products; Offline Orders $1,000+ range
- General interest: Apparel preferences; Attendance at sporting events; Charitable giving; Gambling–casinos; Preferred celebrities; Working-class mother; Membership clubs–self-help; Biker/Hell’s Angel; New Age/Organic lifestyle; Bible lifestyle; Leans left
- Social media and technology: Electronics and software purchases, Heavy Twitter or Facebook user.
The FTC called on Congress to pass laws that force more transparency and accountability upon the industry, for example, creating a portal so consumers can know what information is held about them, correct wrong information as needed, and potentially opt-out of data collection.
At least one privacy advocacy group, however, says the recommendations don’t go far enough, noting the suggestions put unfair responsibility on consumers to be proactive while failing to address the “increasing commodification of sensitive personal information.”