You probably already know that you have precious little privacy, and that shadowy data brokers have built the buying and selling of people’s personal information into a multibillion-dollar industry.
But did you know this: Nobody knows how many so-called list owners and list brokers are operating nationwide. The best guess is tens of thousands.
Or this: These businesses operate largely unregulated, overseen day to day by no official authority.
And if they get things wrong — that is, if there’s ever need to correct files as a result of a death, divorce or similarly life-changing event — there’s pretty much nothing you can do to hold these firms accountable.
Federal regulators find this just as frustrating as consumers.
“We think there is a real problem with the lack of transparency in the data-broker industry,” said Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s division of privacy and identity protection.
Privacy was in the news Thursday as the Federal Communications Commission approved sweeping rules aimed at ensuring that broadband providers don’t abuse customers' browsing history, mobile location data and other sensitive info. Service providers must get customers’ permission before using or sharing such information.
“It's the consumers' information,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “How it is used should be the consumers' choice. Not the choice of some corporate algorithm.”
That sort of thinking, however, doesn’t extend to data brokers.
Questions about the regulatory landscape for info merchants arose after I wrote last week about an Encino woman whose husband was receiving pitches from health insurers 14 years after his death.
I asked the various insurers where they got the impression the guy was still alive, and they said they’d purchased his name and address from list brokers.
But when I asked which list brokers they used, all I got was crickets. In most cases, consumers have no way of knowing where such data was obtained or who should be contacted to fix errors.
“It’s virtually impossible for consumers to have a window on this marketplace,” said Mithal.
The FTC has proposed legislation that would address some of these problems. But it’s gotten nowhere.
Meanwhile, the number of data brokers continues to grow, with each firm exploiting the convergence of public records and digital technology.
“Consumers don’t realize how much information they give out,” said Suzanne Doyle-Ingram, president of Strategic List Services, a list broker with offices in the United States and Canada. “It starts with your phone service. As soon as you sign up, that information becomes available.”
After that, she said, every survey you fill out, every magazine you subscribe to, adds more pieces to the puzzle. Before long, a data broker knows your name, address, age, hobbies, interests and other details of your life that can be parsed into a variety of mailing lists, depending on a marketer’s needs.