Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Are The Data Brokers Profiling You As A Perv or Psycho?

"Corey MacDuff"  has a full list displayed concerning his sex entertainment choices at ExactData - a Chicago data broker.  These include:

- His purchase of two sex toys in  June of 2013:  one dildo and one artificial vagina

- His purchase of three DVDs, one involving spanking by women, and two others - one of women dildoing each other, the other dildoing males.

- His online (pornhub) movie selections all to do with females lactating on each other.

- His purchase of two thongs, one pair of ankle and wrist restraints and one whip from a "Discipline" Emporium

"Corey" might not be overly shocked that the universe of his sexual predilections has been captured by purchase data, but would he be as blasé if he knew this list was being SOLD to any would be purchaser in the constellation of corporations? Would he be at all upset if he knew a prospective employer wanted to buy it?  Does that put a different light on the privacy issue - or is he also likely to blink and yawn and spout 'Whatever...' ? What if one of the buyers is the FBI or the NSA? Does that put a new light on it?

This sordid national underbelly of personal data collection, storage and selling was brought to light in the disturbing '60 Minutes' first segment about Data Brokers on Sunday night. Steve Kroft, host for the segment, went inside the sordid universe of the miscreants who - because of lax government laws (there are no comparable loose laws in Europe)- allows the vast collection and storage of terabytes of raw, personal data each year.

The companies number in the thousands and do all their collecting in the name of "commerce".  As Kroft observed: "They're collecting, analyzing and packaging some of our most personal information and selling it as a commodity - to each other, to advertisers and even to the government- often without our direct knowledge. And most of it operates in the shadows with virtually no oversight".

Did you buy 12 guns - three Glock 9mms, 4 Bushmaster .223s and 5 AR-15s last year? The government likely knows all about them thanks to data brokers who even have their eyes scanning buyers at gun shows.

Kroft noted that companies have been tracking customers for years, collecting names and addresses, tracking credit card purchases and asking people to fill out "questionnaires" so that can send discount offerings and catalogs."

The problem is today, people are giving out more and more personal information online via Twitter, Facebook and blogs: our likes and dislikes, our closest friends, our bad habits, even our daily movements both on and off line.

According to Federal Trade Commissioner,  Julie Brill, we've "lost control of our most personal information.".

What has happened is that data brokers are now scooping up all this personal data online and compiling dossiers on each person - each with his or her name on file. Spooky? Damned right! As Brill told Kroft:

"All the information is about individuals. It is information that is identified to an individual or linked to an individual,"

She added that:

"I don't think people have any idea that this information is being collected and sold and that it is personally about them. And that the information is basically a profile of them."

Kroft explained that no one even knows how many companies are trafficking our data but  would include research firms, internet companies, advertisers and trade associations.  He put the spot light on several of them, including: epsilon, datalogix, Lotame, Transunion, and acxiom - which is the largest data broker.

Acxiom is a veritable marketing giant that brags it has, on average, 1500 pages of information on each of 200 million Americans. That is a total of 300 billion pages of information over all, and all for sale. But as Kroft points out, "it's much harder for Americans to get information on acxiom and, of course, the company declined a request for an interview. Clearly, they don't want to be highlighted on a top investigatory program that would broadcast their existence and activities to Americans.

Kroft went on:

"Acxiom is fairly vague on the methods it uses to collect information and who its customers are."

As one former ACLU rep noted, "It's not about what we know we're sharing. It's about what we don't know that's being collected and sold about us."

He added that he believed people would be astounded to learn the kind of information that's being gathered about them and that could end up in their profiles. This includes: religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, user names, income and family medical history - and that's just for openers.

The former ACLU rep (Tim Sparapani)  also reminded Kroft that right now one can buy a full list of medications - by malady - taken by any given individual.  The range of info also includes alcoholism,, depression, psychiatric problems,  history of genetic problems, cancer, heart disease....down to the most rare and unexpected maladies. Not to mention sexual orientation (obtained via what clubs the person is frequenting,  what bars or restaurants purchases are being made at, and what products are being purchased online).

Sparapani added that not only can the information be sold to a prospective employer, it actually is. Didn't get that cherished job you wanted? Could be that the employer knows you have a genetic condition that's untreatable and for which he doesn't wish to shell out benefits, pay medical costs, or he knows you're part of the LGBT community and doesn't want you part of his community.

No wonder data brokers have been flying under the radar for years,  preferring people know as little as possible about the industry and the information being collected and sold. (One big reason I've done this blog post.)

But the evidence is there, if you know where to look, which Kroft then demonstrated.  In the middle of the segment he was at his computer, going online, and brought up all sorts of companies peddling sensitive, personalized information..

For example, he displayed the web page of a Connecticut data broker called STATLISTICS which provides advertisers with lists of Gay and Lesbian adults.  The rates for the lists start at $125.

Then there was Response Solutions, which provides lists of all those suffering from bipolar disorder, with the rates starting at $205.00 per list.

Then there was Paramount Media which operates out of a building in Erie, PA. It offers lists of people with alcohol, sexual and gambling addictions and also people desperate to get out of debt. (A promising set of info for loan sharks?)

Meanwhile, a Chicago company, ExactData, brokers the names of all those who've had a sexually transmitted disease as well as lists of all those who have purchased adult material - which is compiled under 'PML Eroticia Masterfile'. The constellation of goodies offered up includes: adult toys purchased and type, books and magazines by title, DVDs and videotapes by title, as well as lesbian or gay offerings. In addition, the purchase of all "potency/virility/libido enhancing" substances, materials- and by date..

Tim Sparapani observed that "no one has ever looked into these lists. It's completely opaque."

Perhaps worse than the totally opaque data brokers are the ones that disguise themselves as 'family friendly' outfits who pose as offering help but are actually in the business of data brokerage. One of those Kroft showed was Take5 Solutions in Boca Raton, Fla. - which runs 17 websites including 'Good Parenting Today' and T5 HealthyLiving.com. People can share stories about their families and health but - according to Kroft: "What visitors don't realize is that Take5's real business is collecting and selling the data assembled from their assorted front websites.

Maybe it's time now someone looked into what these brokers are up to and started developing regulations (whoa what an idea!). In the meantime, people need to be mindful of the fact that every time they make a purchase or even passively enter the online world - they are constantly being tracked and monitored (as Kroft showed in the next segment - using a special software tool known as 'Disconnect' created by a former Google engineer.)

In the end segment, Kroft et al had gone online at the NY Times and observed the screen as more than a dozen third parties that the website had allowed in to observe all movements. They were all companies that place ads and also "measure people's behavior on the website."

Can these parasites be prevented from following you around and snooping on your every move?  NO, because as Kroft's techie observed: "They're inside your browser or your mobile device. Most computers and browsers all them in by default."

Is there an ultimate solution to all this snooping right now?  Yeah! Don't go online! In the meantime, one can hope our government wakes up to the need to protect citizens' privacy - but given how it allows NSA to run roughshod over it, don't hold your breath!

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