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.
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.
"(The brokers' data base) says more about what the list makers think about people who live in Harlem than it does about me," she says. "I am almost as disturbed by what data brokers get wrong as when they get it right."
As technology and improved algorithms help the data brokers improve their results, Angwin worries that the resulting lists will become more precise and personal. They aren't just doing this to find the most accurate target market, she says. They are learning what people's vulnerabilities are so they can exploit them.
The price we pay
Jeff Atwood, a blogger in El Cerrito, Calif., who co-founded the programmers website stackoverflow.com, says giving up personal information is the price people pay to do things on the Internet.
"I consider it standard practice," he says. "So much that we do is free. That is the cost of free."
Angwin tried to get her data removed from various data brokers' records. "I was not very successful," she says. "They are not required by law to remove your data."
She was only able to find information on less than half of the data brokers. Only about half of those offered opt out — 92 out of the 212 she identified.13 comments on this story
She posted lists of the data broker information on her website, www.JuliaAngwin.com, identifying those who gave her information about what they knew about her and those that allowed her to opt out.
Some wanted money to remove the information. One wanted a copy of her driver's license. Some required a mail form or fax. Others wanted too much information — such as a credit card number.
"They don't make it easy to get out," she says.