Written by Elaine Howell, IT Services
Data brokers scour the Internet, public records, and anything else they can find to collect information about you, including address and phone number, age, income, criminal records, names of family members, political preferences, and much more. They can uncover information about Internet searches you conduct, websites you visit (including social media sites), what you purchase, and some of what you share on those sites.
Former FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said that “data brokers often know as much—or more—about us than our family and friends.” In 2014, the FTC urged Congress to hold data brokers responsible for the information they share, but the resulting Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act was never passed. When the FTC investigated the data broker industry, it found that brokers gather information on almost all U.S. consumers, mostly without our knowledge. Once this data is organized, companies make “sensitive inferences” about it. For example, brokers might assume that a consumer buying pre-natal vitamins is an expectant mother, and her record will be tagged accordingly.
Usually, all of this information is sold for marketing or risk mitigation purposes, but it’s also available to the public. As you can imagine, this information is dangerous in the wrong hands. The term “doxxing” refers to the now-common practice of exposing a victim’s personal information on public websites as a means of intimidation. Doxxers frequently get their ammunition from data brokers.
Because data brokers are operating legally, how can you protect yourself?
- Most important: Opt out of broker websites that share your information. Not all brokers offer this option, but many do. Spokeo, one of the most popular sites, will remove your information within 48 hours of a request. This list at World Privacy Forum offers opt-out links to the biggest broker sites.
- Adjust your privacy settings on social media accounts. Review your settings on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest, and make sure you’re not sharing more than you want to. This article from SocialPilot explains more about changing your settings.
- Consider using an ad blocker. There are pros and cons to these browser plug-ins. Some say they hurt websites who rely on ad revenue to stay in business, and others, like Edward Snowden, say ad blockers are essential to guarding your privacy.
- Regularly clear cookies, which store information about you, from your browser. You can find this option in your settings, and Digital Trends offers instructions for users of Chrome, FireFox, Safari, and IE.
- Do an Internet search on yourself, just to see what’s out there. If you find something you don’t like, contact the site owner to see if they will remove it.
Remember that data brokers continuously gather information and add it to their databases, so it’s a good idea to opt out at least once a year.
- FTC Report, “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.” (PDF)
- World Privacy Forum Opt-Out List.
- Read Write Article, “Here are 20 Companies Who Sell Your Data and How to Stop Them.”
- Computer World Article, “Doxxing Defense: Remove Your Personal Info from Data Brokers.”
- The Daily Beast Article, “I Got Doxxed So You Don’t Have To.”
- Surveillance Self-Defense, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.