Someone is selling your personal details—can you stop them?

The willing surrender of personal information has created a shadowy data broker industry. Your lack of privacy is their gain—and your liability.

Your reputation and privacy matter, particularly if you have a high-profile business role. But the details of your life are very likely more exposed than you know. To prove that, just search your name (and company or location if you have a common name) on any search engine, and, amid the usual Facebook and LinkedIn links, you’ll find an assortment of results from sites with names like Spokeo, Yellowbook, BeenVerified, LocatePeople, and MyLife.

Clicking through might get you a partial address or snippet of a phone number, but to get the good stuff, you’ll need to run a full report—which the services tell you will include not just contact details but also such tantalizing tidbits such as arrest records, marriage certificates, social media accounts, and legal judgments.

You’ve hit upon a data broker—and you’d probably be stunned to learn how much they know about you.

Data brokering is legal and practiced by some large and reputable firms, such as Experian and Acxiom, who sell information for legitimate purposes like credit and background checks. But there’s also a large and shadowy corpus of roughly 1,200 companies that specialize in scraping together every bit of information they can find about you and selling it to anyone who’ll pay.

Trading privacy for convenience

“U.S. users, in particular, have traded privacy for convenience and have become numb to the fact that a lot of information about them is just out there,” said Lynn Raynault, president of Hush, a digital privacy protection platform that launched last month.

Data brokers specialize in finding information that doesn’t show up in web searches, such as tax records, healthcare histories, and bankruptcy filings. Often, these are held in private databases protected by paywalls or passwords or locked up in scanned printed documents. This so-called “deep web” of information makes up 90% of the online universe.

These companies excel at piecing together information from multiple sources—some of it years old—into a master profile. They use technologies such as machine learning and optical character recognition to mine databases of digital photos and unearth details in scanned paper documents respectively

The amount of digital exhaust we leave behind is astounding. It can be used by stalkers and extortionists in insidious ways. Raynault tells of one client who discovered a PDF of a newspaper interview from 2007 in which he revealed his parents’ address, where he went to school, and where he spent his summers. In simpler times we didn’t think twice about divulging such details, but today it’s bait for fraudsters and thieves.

Another client was so eager to adopt a dog that she posted her phone number to the adoption agency’s Facebook page without realizing that the post was public. Then there was the CEO whose public relations team created a Wikipedia page that included the names of his wife and children. His daughter subsequently received a “creepy phone call,” Raynault remembers, from someone who had bought her number from a data broker and harvested personal details from social networks.

Details pay dividends

Even a small amount of personal data can yield dividends to bad actors. For example, birth certificates and school records contain information commonly used to protect bank accounts. With nothing more than your home address, thieves “can look you up on real estate websites like Redfin or Zillow and find pictures and floorplans of your home,” Raynault said. “Now you've shown them your passions and interests and given them full visibility into your assets.”

Scrubbing information held by data brokers is an all-but-impossible task. “There are no national laws; it’s all state-by-state,” she said. “To request removal, you pretty much have to go to all 1,200 of them.”

The less scrupulous brokers find ways to frustrate the process. Some require written requests or ask for information that isn’t in their database, such as a phone number. That becomes a data element they can sell to somebody else.

The case for protecting personal information has never been more compelling. Unemployment fraud is up 4,000% since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly half the population of the U.S. has been a victim of identity theft, and one in six women will be stalked at some point.

Lock down your social network accounts and reveal as little personal information as possible to anyone. “We see time and again accounts that give strangers access to all the photos, posts, and friends,” Raynault says. Her company and others like it can help by digging for information using the same tools that data brokers do and even petitioning to have details taken down.

Numerous bills are pending at the state and federal level that would rein in data brokering—but creating a law and enforcing it are two different things. The person who is best equipped to protect their privacy is the one looking at the screen right now.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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