Earlier this week, I posted a blog called Are You Keeping Track of Being Tracked (Part 1). It is basically a beginner’s guide to exploring how more than 200 data collection companies and ad networks are using about 600 different tracking technologies to gather, analyze, store, and sell information on people’s web habits … and yes, this includes your web habits … and mine too.
Today, I’d like to share with you what I have learned about who is accessing your personal online data to create an identity profile (Part 2); and on Friday, I’ll talk more about safeguarding your personal and professional reputation online (Part 3).
My foray into the stealth-mode world of personal data collection and profiling was a real eye opener. It started innocently enough during conversation with a tech savvy friend and went something like this: “Well, you can look up anyone by using a service called Pipl. The technology uses an operational intelligence process called Identity Resolution. It connects different pieces of your personal on-line data to create a profile. The kicker is that this that your Pipl profile can be accessed by anyone, anywhere, anytime by just entering your name, email, username, or phone”.
Naturally I was intrigued, so I decided to test the power of this new technology for myself by simply going to the Pipl website and typing in my name. I was amazed (and taken back) by the scope and depth of personal and professional information that came up by just doing a FREE search on my name.
The Age of the Data Broker
By doing research, I quickly discovered that with everyone’s personal and professional data available online, a new industry of “Data Broker” companies has emerged. Their sole purpose is to make money by collecting and selling your personal and professional information. If you would like to get a grip on the type of information Data Brokers collect, you will enjoy reading Meet the Online Snoops Selling Your Dirty Laundry and How You Can Stop Them. To me, the Data Broker dynamic is like the California Gold Rush and oops, you guessed it … your data is the gold!
If you are curious and would like to see some of the names of the Data Broker companies leaking in your cyberspace neighborhood, check out Jon Mitchell’s 2012 article Here Are 20 Companies Who Sell Your Data (& How To Stop Them).
At the end of the day, it is important to be aware that most Data Broker companies are savvy in the art and science of lulling you into thinking that having access to a cornucopia of personal and professional data is 100% ethical and helpful (For example: “We help you find friends” or “Identify unknown callers or emails”). The downside is that there are only self-policing regulations in place to guarantee that Data Broker companies (and by extension, the companies that buy your data from Data Broker companies) will use your precious personal and professional data in a safe, secure, and ethical manner. This is because in the US, unlike Canada and the European Union, the on-line data collection industry is currently self-regulated.
On an optimistic note, as shared in The Huffington Post article Consumer Privacy Defended in FTC’s Caution to Congress on Data Brokers, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has now “called for legislation to give consumers access to personal data held by brokers and allow them to correct any inaccurate information.” For more in-depth commentary, please check out the 2012 FTC report Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policy Makers.
The Solution? Opt-Out
So what can we do as the powers-that-be catch up and sort out the Wild Ol’ West of how your goldmine of personal and professional data is captured, analyzed, stored and sold?
The first step might be to read the articles and action the safety and security steps featured in Are You Keeping Track of Being Tracked?
Some online sites that you subscribe to may offer a data collection “Opt-Out” option (look in your Account Privacy settings). Next, educate yourself on the companies that have popped up to offer an “Opt-Out” service to help protect people from having their online data scooped up, reassembled as an identity profile, and sold to (… well, that is just it, we have no control over who our data is sold to … gasp!). As for me, I explored a paid service called Delete Me; another is Safe Sheppard.
As a note of caution, it is wise to remember that currently in the US, even if you request that your data be removed from Data Brokers sites, they are not required to comply with your request or the request of a company operating on your behalf.
Take Control of Your Information
Here’s an excerpt from Abine that sums things up pretty well: “The Internet has grown exponentially since its inception, and personal information is increasingly becoming a valuable, tradable commodity that is collected, stored, and transmitted with ease. Sure, online data collection and targeted advertising can make online shopping and quick searching more convenient, but it is difficult to determine where to draw the line to prevent unwanted use and storage of consumer information. Hence, the government has pretty much left it up to the consumer herself to opt-out of behavioral targeted advertising, access to social network profiles, and other data collection and sharing activities.”
As always, the best course of action is to make your voice heard. To this end, you might find the blog post Do You Have a Legally Protected Right to Online Privacy , with its handy list of resources an invaluable tool.