In a previous blog we looked at how peoples’ data is gathered online. In this blog we’re looking at how the data is used and the inherent dangers.

But first, data collection is not limited to online sources; data brokers also gather it from offline sources.  For instance a major source of data actually comes from the state.

In the UK this can be the Land Registry, the Office for National Statistics, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Ofcom.

When combined with online data, data brokers have an incredibly powerful amount of information in their hands.
  • For both offline and online data, one of the obstacles for advertisers is to identify a single individual across several devices, as most people will use at least a smart phone and a computer. 
  • To avoid using personally identifiable information data companies tend to stay away from real names but instead assign people a unique ID. 
  • This ability to identify individuals according to their unique ID is a persuasive marketing argument for data buyers.

Acxiom, one of the data broking giants, obtains data on British citizens through a company called Read Group. This latter company boasts that it combines transactional history, lifestyle choices, behavioural insights and geo-demographics to help other companies target their advertising at different levels.

Most people have no idea who these data broking companies are and how they get their data. In fact, many would be surprised to know the intimate details these companies gather.
  • Data brokers have highly detailed profiles on billions of individuals, comprising age, race, sex, weight, height, marital status, education level, politics, shopping habits, health issues, holiday plans, and more.

This data can be used to put people in high-risk classifications based on their search history:
  • For instance high-interest loans could be targeted at ‘high-risk’ people even if they qualify for low-interest loans. 
  • Searching specific medical conditions online such as heart disease or diabetes could be added to your digital biography. This information is of interest to insurance companies. 
  • Based on the interests inferred from data, people are typically placed in categories such as ‘expectant parent,’ ‘cholesterol focus’, ‘cancer concerns’ or categories that involve ethnicity, income and age. 
  • Even seemingly innocuous searches like looking at racing motorcycles online might mean that insurance companies would consider you more likely to engage in risky behaviour and hike up insurance premiums based on your online profile. 
  • In some cases, these classifications may be based on inaccurate information. Yet there’s no easy process for consumers to access this information, correct it, challenge it and remove it. 
  • A bank or loan company might use risk mitigation software to determine whether an application is potential fraud. This can be based on an address associated with fraud or whether a person is deceased. But it can also stop people who happen to have a matching address but are not committing fraud from being able to gain a loan.

Information gathered by data brokers also includes aliases, education records, employment details, marriage details, divorce, bankruptcy, social media profiles, property records and even information on relatives.
 
  • This personal information can find its way on to websites that provide people searches. These sites can provide access to information people would rather keep private.

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Not accountable

The larger problem is how can be data broking companies held accountable for the data they hold and how they use it when many of us don’t even know they exist.

Regulation such as GDPR helps to some extent by providing a tool that holds companies to account for data gathering. But many have got around this by asking users to agree to a privacy policy to use their service and within this policy is a statement that says data may be passed to third-parties, who can be data brokers.

In a follow up blog we’ll outline some steps you can take to ensure online anonymity so your personal life doesn’t become fuel for data brokers’ business.