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The Secretive World Of Selling Data About You

Stashed in: Privacy does not exist., You are the product., Privacy

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Data brokers are notoriously secretive. Only one, Acxiom, granted Newsweek an interview with a company officer, despite two months of requests to dozens of firms. “A lot of the information, the deals that take place, are proprietary in nature,” says Paul Stephens, a director at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, which advocates for consumer rights regarding personal information. “It’s hard to tell who’s selling what to whom.” In fact, it’s unknown exactly how many data brokers operate in the United States, because so many keep a low profile. Credible estimates range from 2,500 to 4,000. There are supergiants in the field—Acxiom, Experian. But there are myriad smaller companies that few have heard of: Exact Data, Paramount Lists, Datalogix, Statlistics.

The worst that may happen to you in these cases is you’ll get junk mail you don’t want. But more insidious things can happen when brokers go beyond names and addresses to selling other information, which brokers’ clients usually download from a web server. Several years ago a broker named InfoUSA sold a list of 19,000 verified elderly sweepstakes players to a group of experienced scam artists, who stole over $100 million by calling people on the list and pretending to be government or insurance workers who needed bank account information to ensure their pill prescriptions. The New York Times turned up one InfoUSA list whose description read, “These people are gullible. They believe that their luck can change.”

“Everything has moved to scores. Lists are a commodity,” says Pam Dixon, executive director of World Privacy Forum, an advocacy organization also in San Diego. “We’re moving into a very different world.” In the 1950s, credit agencies began creating scores on potential lenders that included factors, such as race, that were later banned by federal regulation.

Today, consumer scores have no such regulation for accuracy, transparency or fairness. With modern computers, scores can include thousands of factors. You might be surprised what can go into a score for your health: How much merchandise you buy, how much online shopping you do, and your ethnicity, which can be guessed by a computer program based on the other information available about you.

“We’re living in a world where businesses and important life opportunities are being decided based on this amalgamated data,” Dixon says. “Most colleges and universities use some sort of predictive analytics to figure out if a student will be able to pay for the full four years. There’s a score for that. Companies are applying aggregate credit scores (not FICO scores) to individuals.  It affects what work you get, how much you pay for health insurance, and potentially what schools you get accepted to.

Besides FICO is there any way to know what our scores are?



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