Big Data Controlled by Data Brokers: Privacy Challenge by the FTC


The Federal Trade Commission recommended that Congress regulate data brokers because they “collect co nsumers’ personal information and resell or share that information with others—are important participants in this Big Data economy.” The FTC report issued on May 27, 2014 is entitled “Data Brokers – A call for Transparency and Accountability” included the following characteristics of the 9 largest companies in this space:

  • Data Brokers Collect Consumer Data from Numerous Sources, Largely Without Consumers’ Knowledge: Data brokers collect data from commercial, government, and other publicly available sources. Data collected could include bankruptcy information, voting registration, consumer purchase data, web browsing activities, warranty registrations, and other details of consumers’ everyday interactions. Data brokers do not obtain this data directly from consumers, and consumers are thus largely unaware that data brokers are collecting and using this information. While each data broker source may provide only a few data elements about a consumer’s activities, data brokers can put all of these data elements together to form a more detailed composite of the consumer’s life.
  • The Data Broker Industry is Complex, with Multiple Layers of Data Brokers Providing Data to Each Other: Data brokers provide data not only to end-users, but also to other data brokers. The nine data brokers studied obtain most of their data from other data brokers rather than directly from an original source. Some of those data brokers may in turn have obtained the information from other data brokers. Seven of the nine data brokers in the Commission’s study provide data to each other. Accordingly, it would be virtually impossible for a consumer to determine how a data broker obtained his or her data; the consumer would have to retrace the path of data through a series of data brokers.
  • Data Brokers Collect and Store Billions of Data Elements Covering Nearly Every U.S. Consumer: Data brokers collect and store a vast amount of data on almost every U.S. household and commercial transaction. Of the nine data brokers, one data broker’s database has information on 1.4 billion consumer transactions and over 700 billion aggregated data elements; another data broker’s database covers one trillion dollars in consumer transactions; and yet another data broker adds three billion new records each month to its databases. Most importantly, data brokers hold a vast array of information on individual consumers. For example, one of the nine data brokers has 3000 data segments for nearly every U.S. consumer.
  • Data Brokers Combine and Analyze Data About Consumers to Make Inferences About Them, Including Potentially Sensitive Inferences: Data brokers infer consumer interests from the data that they collect. They use those interests, along with other information, to place consumers in categories. Some categories may seem innocuous such as “Dog Owner,” “Winter Activity Enthusiast,” or “Mail Order Responder.” Potentially sensitive categories include those that primarily focus on ethnicity and income levels, such as “Urban Scramble” and “Mobile Mixers,” both of which include a high concentration of Latinos and African Americans with low incomes. Other potentially sensitive categories highlight a consumer’s age such as “Rural Everlasting,” which includes single men and women over the age of 66 with “low educational attainment and low net worths,” while “Married Sophisticates” includes thirty-something couples in the “upper-middle class . . . with no children.” Yet other potentially sensitive categories highlight certain health-related topics or conditions, such as “Expectant Parent,” “Diabetes Interest,” and “Cholesterol Focus.”
  • Data Brokers Combine Online and Offline Data to Market to Consumers Online: Data brokers rely on websites with registration features and cookies to find consumers online and target Internet advertisements to them based on their offline activities. Once a data broker locates a consumer online and places a cookie on the consumer’s browser, the data broker’s client can advertise to that consumer across the Internet for as long as the cookie stays on the consumer’s browser. Consumers may not be aware that data brokers are providing companies with products to allow them to advertise to consumers online based on their offline activities. Some data brokers are using similar technology to serve targeted advertisements to consumers on mobile devices.

It will be interesting to see what Congress does, if anything, to regulate these data brokers.

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