Years ago, out of sheer curiosity, I sat down and googled myself. The results both stunned and horrified me.
Within a span of five minutes, I was able to pull up my current address, a shockingly accurate list of all of my prior addresses, the names, addresses, and ages of multiple relatives, my job history, and a slew of other information that I would never EVER publicly publish. I was devastated.
And I was also terrified. As a single woman living alone in a large, metropolitan city, I’d always felt that my privacy was interlinked with my safety. And now that it was apparent that almost all of my personal information was out there for the entire f@%$ing world to see, I didn’t feel very safe.
“How had this happened?” I wondered.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the culprit was none other than the $200 billion dollar industry of data brokering.
Data Brokering – A Business or a Threat?
Data brokering in its simplest form is the business of buying and selling your personal information which includes everything from your current and past addresses to your online activity (think search history, likes and loves on social media sites, and buying history) to your political party affiliation and campaign contributions. The data can be used for a variety of purposes like employers trying to determine whether you’re a good fit for a job and by landlords who want to find out if you’d be a good tenant. And, as you might already know or have guessed, your data is pure gold to marketers who pay good money to find out what you might be interested in buying soon.
The real insidiousness of data brokering is not, however, the annoying ads that follow you from site to site as you browse online. It’s the fact that we don’t always know what our personal data is being used for. Because data brokers go largely unregulated (Internet law is still new and quite undeveloped.), these businesses often do not have to provide any transparency around who they’re selling your personal data to and/or how your data is being used once it’s sold.
What we do know is that data brokers can make life very hard for the consumers whose data they trade. Data brokers make their money by identifying customers’ behavioral and spending patterns, thereby creating a digital profile of sorts to buy and sell. A March 2019 Fast Company article didn’t mince words when contemplating the real-life harms of this practice. “Apart from the dangers of merely collecting and storing all that data, detailed (and often erroneous) consumer profiles can lead to race or income-based discrimination, in a high-tech version of redlining.”
What’s more, data brokers also sell your information to people search sites like Spokeo, Intelius, and People Finder – leaving you and your personal information vulnerable to doxxers, abusers, and stalkers.
Which brings me back to that memory of me sitting in front of my computer all those years ago angry, terrified, and ready to move heaven and earth to remove my personal information from the web – information that I’d never given anyone permission to publish in the first place.
I began contacting each site, one by one, and requested that they remove my personal information as sites are required to offer an “opt-out” clause. This was long and tedious, but it worked. And it brought a feeling of peace and safety.
Now that I know about data brokering, I am proactive about protecting myself and my data. I google myself regularly so that I can take immediate action if I see anything that is inaccurate, disparaging, or completely intrusive upon my privacy.
For ways that you too can take control of your online data, be sure to check out this AmPopsy article for a few tools and resources.