By Marie Flanagan April 11, 2022
Summary: It’s easy to make jokes about the internet knowing everything about you — but it’s also easy to forget that someone is using all of that data to sell you more items. We’re diving into the mysterious world of data brokers and finding out just what they know about us… and what we can do to keep our personal lives personal.
We’ve all made jokes about how our phones are listening to us — a friend makes a comment about the new meal subscription service they’re using and suddenly all the ads in your feed are for the same thing. According to Norton, it turns out our devices actually are listening to us, thanks to things like voice search settings.
But if our devices are listening all the time (not just when we’ve said a certain name), what happens to all of that data? Or all the other data that we create every time we go online, use our GPS, or watch a TikTok?
Well, that data might be collected by a data broker — and making them lots of money.
A data broker is a business that collects information from a wide variety of sources. Then, they analyze it and license it to other organizations to use. Licensing it, instead of selling it, means that the other companies can only use it for specific reasons. And it means that the data broker retains the rights to it. You may have heard a data broker called an information broker or information product company.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the data broker industry is worth roughly $200 billion. This includes well-known companies, like Equifax and TransUnion, as well as smaller firms that gather personal information from public and private sources and then license it to other companies. Those smaller firms are what we’ll be focusing on.
Lots of personal information is widely and freely available to companies that want it – so they don’t have to work that hard to find your data.
There’s a lot of personal data that’s available from public records, from court records and car registration to marriage licenses and voter registration information. Brokers can also get information from credit card companies and retailers to learn how much money you owe, what coupons you use, and what items you tend to purchase.
You might be thinking that there’s nothing overly interesting about your online behavior. You browse social media, make some purchases, stream the latest season of your favorite show, and send some emails. But a data broker could be interested in all that information and more.
Really anything that helps sell products or services is valuable to a company. That ranges from how many children you have, if you’re married, your income, where you live, your favorite hobbies, and more. If you’re loyal to a specific brand – whether that’s for your cell phone or your dishwashing detergent – that’s also valuable to companies.
And with social media? We’re all putting more out there than ever before. Data brokers can find out what posts you’ve made or liked, what online quizzes you’ve taken, contests you’ve entered, websites you frequently visit, and more.
The more information you put online (such as marking certain friends as family members and joining groups that correspond to your hometown or graduation year), the more data brokers can easily find out about you.
And the more information they have about you, the more robust your profile — and the more valuable it is to other companies.
Your information can be used in multiple ways depending on what companies purchase it. We’ll dive into the basics here.
If you’ve seen advertisements for products or services you’ve already bought, it could be thanks to data brokers. Businesses can purchase information about your shopping and spending habits and use it to send timed ads, reminding you when to purchase more pet food when you’re almost out.
It’s valuable for lenders, banks, and other financial institutions to know how much money you owe, what loans you’ve paid down, payments you’ve missed, current income and job history, and more. This can help them target ads to individuals eligible for refinancing, for example, or for a low-interest credit card offer.
If you’re in the market to refinance, this could be of great benefit to you, too.
But companies can also use your information to detect fraud. For example, if you’ve applied for a loan, the lender can check the information you provided against the information that data brokers have found. This is one way to verify that your application was accurate regarding income and debts.
Sites like Spokeo, Peek You, and PeopleSmart allow users to search for a person by name. Then, you have the option to pay a fee to receive information about that person, like their address, phone number, date of birth, and more. These sites receive information from data brokers, then sell it to interested parties for a fee. Unfortunately, that information can also be used for social engineering (a more sophisticated phishing attempt) or identity theft.
So while you could argue that data brokers aren’t inherently risky, they might sell your information to someone with poor intentions.
While data brokers are perfectly legal, you might not be comfortable with the amount of information they know about you. Unfortunately, once your information is on the web, it’s extremely difficult to fully erase. The good news? You can take precautions going forward, so most of the information the brokers have about you will become outdated.
Here are a few ways to help protect your personal information:
Keeping your personal information personal can seem like an uphill battle. And it’s true, getting started can be tough. But once you’ve made some adjustments, you’ll be amazed at how much you had been sharing online.
If you’re ready to make a change, choose a high-speed internet provider that’s committed to your privacy. At EarthLink, we don’t sell your information and we don’t let just anybody into your inbox. When you choose EarthLink home internet, you can rest easy knowing that we value privacy as much as you do. And our cyber safety package, powered by NortonLifeLock, is a top-of-the-line investment that pairs great with your new internet.
So start browsing more safely and stop wondering how much your browser knows about you.
Marie Flanagan is a contributing writer for EarthLink. She’s a life-long Atlantan with a passion for SaaS, IoT, AI, fintech, and everything technology. Her ideal offline situation is volunteering in STEM education for girls or on her front porch with a book.
See all posts from Marie Flanagan.