Opinion

Your personal data is shopped around | Rich Elfers

Most of you are familiar with Edward Snowden, the government employee who stole thousands of secret files from the National Security Agency and then fled, eventually ending up in temporary refuge in Russia. The secret data collecting the government has been carrying out appalled many Americans.

What you may not be as aware of is there are thousands of private data collecting companies that are far more invasive of your privacy than the government. According to Steve Kroft on a recent 60 Minutes segment called “The Data Brokers: Selling Your Personal Information,” thousands of companies are gathering data on every website you visit. If you use a Smartphone, they know where you are every minute of the day. (Visit 60 Minutes to see the segment.)

These data brokers sell the information to other businesses, to advertisers and even to the government. Your religion, ethnicity, family medical history and medications, and addictions like alcoholism are included. It’s legal and it’s very difficult to opt out of this practice.

Three of the biggest of these data brokers are Acxiom, Epsilon and Experian. All of these brokers operate under the radar of most people and that’s the way these companies prefer it. Epsilon’s chief executive officer stated on the 60 Minutes segment that the industry does not need to be regulated because it can regulate itself. If these data brokers are regulated, “It could cripple the economy.”

That’s what bankers said about credit default swaps before their lack of self-control and greed helped to bring on the 2008 economic crash.

For retailers, selling personal information has become a secondary source of income, almost equaling what they make in selling their products and services, or even more. There’s a big incentive to increase profits by selling their customers’ data.

If you own a Smartphone and have downloaded the app called “Angry Birds” (more than a billion people got it) or “The Brightest Flashlight Free” (50 million downloaded the app), it was found that a tracking device had been added to your phone without your knowledge. If your teen used Path Inc., a social media site, it was found that a worm within the site downloaded his/her contact list and sent it on to one of these data brokers.

When you visit a website there is a whole crowd of data brokers watching you and following where you go. When you take a survey online, often the information is gathered and put into your profile to gather more information about you.

If you use dating sites, even if your name is protected, your IP (Internet provider) address is not, so the data brokers can easily find out who you are. All the information you fill out on one of those sites goes into your dossier collected by these businesses and is sold to others. If you apply for a job, this information is accessible to a potential employer.

After re-watching the 60 Minutes segment noted above, I was sent to 60 Minutes Overtime to find out how to protect myself from these data brokers. On the Overtime video, producers of the 60 Minutes segment I watched shared ways to stop these companies from gathering information on you without your knowledge, but it’s difficult and time consuming.

One suggestion was to go to the website called “Disconnect” that can show you all the data brokers who are hovering over every site you visit. Another was to use the search engine called “Duck Duck Go” that does not keep a record of your searches, like Google does. Google and Facebook, by the way, do not sell your information to anyone else.

They keep it all to themselves – all your data.

Many people were upset about Edward Snowden’s revelations of government spying on Americans, but most people don’t understand there are many businesses that are far more invasive than the government. Thousands of data brokers have created profiles on each of us based on all the Internet websites we visit. What’s missing is our choice about what’s in these profiles. What’s missing is our choice of whether or not to participate in this practice.

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