Data brokers are a threat to democracy
You probably never did You’ve heard of Acxiom, but it probably knows you: the Arkansas company claims having data on 2.5 billion people worldwide. In the US, if someone is interested in this information, there is almost no restriction on their ability to purchase and use it.
Enter the data brokerage industry to sell the intimate details of consumers and citizens to the multimillion-dollar economy. A large part of the privacy discourse has pointed straight fingers at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok who gather information directly from users. There is a much broader ecosystem around buying, licensing, selling, and sharing data around platforms. Data brokerage firms are intermediaries of surveillance capitalism: the purchase, collection, and repackaging of data from other firms for the purpose of selling or distributing all of this.
Data mediation is a threat to democracy. Without strong national privacy protections, they are willing to buy complete databases of information for citizens, from predatory lending companies, law enforcement agencies, or malicious foreign agents. Federal privacy bills that do not pay proper attention to data mediation will therefore not address a huge portion of the data protection economy and will weaken civil rights, national security, and public-private boundaries in the process.
Big data brokers, such as Acxiom, CoreLogic and Epsilon, provide details of their data to millions or even billions of people. CoreLogic, for example announces Real estate and property information for 99.9% of the U.S. population. Axiom promotes Up to 11,000 “data attributes,” from car loan information to travel preferences, to 2.5 billion people (all brands help to connect “ethically” with people, he adds).
Do you need to advertise to poor families in rural areas? Check out the “Rural and Hard to Do” dataset in the data broker. Or how to say the weakness of the racial economic profile? Buy another company’s “Ethnic Second City Fighters” data set. These are some of the most disturbing titles received in the 2013 Senate report about industry data products, which have only since been disseminated. Many other brokers predict the ability of individuals to identify subgroups through criteria such as race, gender, marital status, and income level that would likely end up in a database of sensitive traits that citizens were probably unaware of, let alone for sale.
These companies often obtain information through purchase, license, or sharing agreements with others. Oracle, for example, “owns and works with” 80 data brokers, according to a 2019 release Financial Times report, collects information about Internet behavior from consumer purchases. However, many companies extract data that is publicly visible on the Internet and then sell or share it. “People searches” websites often fall into the latter category: collecting public records (archiving property, court documents, ballot papers, etc.) from individuals and then allowing anyone to search for information on the Internet.
All of these unverified practices are detrimental to civil rights. Companies that pride themselves on having data points on millions or billions of people — selling everything to whoever is buying it — are themselves the sum of unlimited surveillance capacity. This is especially dangerous for the powerful. As the United States has done for centuries undeniable light, the most serious impact of collecting personal information from individuals will fall on the oppressed or marginalized: the poor, black and brown communities, indigenous populations, LGBTQ + individuals, undocumented immigrants. Websites that are “searched by people” can provide particular addresses enable intimate partner violence or doxing. Strong financial incentives to sell data, with almost non-existent limitations, give these companies every reason to share their data with others, even those they use for damages.