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Your secret permanent records that are up for sale every day

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 11 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

Targeted junk mail marketing is just one way data brokers may affect people's lives.

Devonyu, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Which marketing list are you on?

Is it the list of seniors with dementia? Are you on the list of impulse buyers? Maybe you are on the list of people with "newly activated credit cards" or "obese and morbidly obese consumers."

Maybe you show up on "badcustomer" or on people with "mental health problems." There are even marketing lists of rape victims, people with addictive behaviors, people suffering from AIDS, and lists of police officers, according to testimony given before the U.S. Senate by World Privacy Forum's executive director, Pam Dixon.

These are just a few of the many lists created by data brokers, companies that scour the Internet and other public and private records to compile everything from your age to what you bought, when you bought it, what you responded to, what you posted on Facebook, and on and on — anything that will give companies an edge when they try to sell you things.

The records data brokers create are permanent and under virtually no regulation.

Julia Angwin, author of the forthcoming book, "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," tried to find out from multiple data brokers what kind of information they had about her.

It used to be that data brokers had limited information, Angwin says. They gathered home addresses, telephone numbers, car records and other public information such as property records. "But now they can put together a comprehensive picture of your life," Angwin says. "And once you know everything about me, you have a lot of leverage on me. They are going to have an edge."

Imagine walking in to buy a car, she says, and the salesman knows how much you make, how much you paid on your last car, even how often you make purchases.

Gathering data

Dixon, in her testimony in Washington, said even if people are careful with their information, "they will still have detailed information about their private and in some cases professional lives collected, bundled, bought, trade, sold … and used in various ways to target or to deny goods, services and opportunities."

When Angwin gathered some reports from data brokers, she says she was horrified. "They knew I had bought underwear the week before," she says. "Does anybody really need to know that? But it is in the report, and it is never going to be out of there."

The use of data is illustrated by a New York Times article from 2012 that explained how Target was able to predict which female customers were pregnant by looking at their purchases. Women who switched to scent-free lotions and soaps and followed other patterns of sequenced buying behavior indicated they were expecting. Target then sent mailers to those women that included baby products.

But part of the problem isn't just that data brokers get personal information about what type of underwear you are buying or that they can use patterns and data to predict your interest in various products but that they can get it wrong.

Sometimes they get bad information. As Dixon told Congress, sometimes thieves steal somebody's identity and then their purchases and other illicit actions can get on their victims' permanent data broker records.

Other times, data brokers make unwarranted assumptions about people based on what they know about those people.

For example, Angwin lives in Harlem, N.Y. — which makes some data brokers assume she is a single mother and has no college degree, neither of which are true.

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