What would you call an industry that is worth billions, is largely unregulated and is almost invisible? Perhaps the global drug trade comes to mind but you’d be wrong. It’s the data broker industry.

It operates in the shadows, out of sight of regulators and the general public. And there are thousands of companies involved.  

Perhaps you’ve just got married, had children, arranged a funeral, bought shoes, booked a holiday online, checked out some second hand car sites, moved home, rented an apartment, walked a mountain range, sold  a pushchair, signed up for an online service or installed a smart speaker at home.

Rest assured this, and other information, will be sitting in the database of some data broker somewhere who will likely sell it onto another data broker who in turn may well sell it to another data broker.

Eventually it will reach an organisation that proudly announces it has millions of user profiles that combine transactional history, lifestyle choices, behavioural insights and geo-demographics to help organisations target their ad campaigns at any level.

Is it unethical? What do you think?

Here are the most common online methods used to collect your data.

Cookies

  • Most websites include embedded code and images that collect data about who we are, what we’re reading and what we’re interested in. While techniques vary, many co called third party trackers rely on cookies and web beacons also known as pixels. 
  • Some large data collecting companies embed trackers in a network of millions of websites sites so that every time a user visits one of these websites, they are identified and their browsing history recorded. 
  • This is why when you look at a winter coat on a website you may find an ad for other winter coats stalking you across different websites. 
  • Browsing histories are also used to create profiles and to establish users’ identities, interests and much more.

Apps and third party trackers 

  • An estimated three in four Android apps contain at least one third-party tracker. The majority of third-party app analytics companies use tracking for targeted advertising, behavioural analytics and location tracking. 
  • Some apps frequently access users’ entire address books, location data, photos and more, sometimes even if you have explicitly turned off access to such data.

Platform registration

  • Another way data companies obtain your data is through website registrations. Many websites now expect you to register to access the website’s content. 
  • Some websites appear to have been created largely for the purposes of obtaining data. 
  • Other websites target people according to their ‘data profile’, such as future parents, and offer information and discounts to their members, while still collecting data on those who interact with the websites.

Personality tests, quizzes, surveys and prizes

  • Surveys are a major source of data gathering. This includes things such as personality quizzes, online games and tests and more. 
  • When a company asks you to rate a product, your opinion may benefit many other companies if the data is sold on, which it often is. 
  • Prizes and competitions are another way for data companies to obtain data. Every time you enter a competition or prize draw, the real winner will probably be the company collecting the data.

Shops and services selling your data

  • Another way your data is obtained is from the companies you interact with, the places you shop and the services you use. 
  • Many data companies offer advertising and marketing services to retailers, for instance. To provide such services these companies need customer data, which retailers and other services sometimes pass on.

Privacy policies

In most of the instances above you will be asked to agree to a privacy policy in order to use the service, take the quiz, enter a competition and so on.

You are often told your data may be shared with trusted third parties. Often the trusted third-party is a data company.

Virtual private networks

With a VPN, you can protect yourself against anonymous data gathering to a degree.

A VPN is an online privacy and security tool that enables you to hide your online activity and disguise your IP address.

By hiding your IP address, you effectively disconnect your identity from the cookies that websites create, making it impossible for anyone to use them to track your online activity.

Check out BullGuard VPN.