How data brokers find and sell your personal info


Data brokers gather and sell information about you. Here’s how to gain some control over your data.

Your consumer data is valuable to businesses. They would love to discover where you shop online, what Facebook pages you like, and how much you spend on your home — that's why data brokers are in business.

Data brokers are companies that collect information about you and then sell that data to others, usually companies or individuals. The information that data brokers collect can be extensive, everything from your date of birth and address to your job title, number of children, and even your hobbies and interests.

In many cases, you might not even be aware that these data brokers are nabbing your personal information.

What are data brokers?

Data brokers either collect information on individuals or purchase it from other companies. There's a reason these companies exist — the business of selling data is a lucrative one. According to WebFX, there were more than 4,000 data brokerage companies operating across the globe in 2019.

WebFX provides data brokerage firm Acxiom as a case study of just how active these companies can be Acxiom, which ranks as one of the largest companies in the industry, collects data on 500 million consumers with up to 1,500 different pieces of information per person. WebFX reports that in 2012, data broker companies made $150 billion in revenue.

What types of information do data brokers collect?

Data brokers are interested in any kind of information that would help a company sell you products or services.

Some examples? Data brokers might know how many children you have and their ages. They might know when you got married or when you filed for divorce. Your income, gender, and home address are all pieces of information that data brokers value and collect.

That's just the beginning. Say you spend a lot of time playing online video games. Data brokers might compile information on your favourite games and then sell that information on to companies hoping to sell you their own products. If you support a particular football team, a data brokerage firm will want to know. If you prefer one brand of dishwashing detergent over others, data brokers will happily past this information onto other companies.

How do data brokers get your information?

You might be surprised to learn how much of your personal information is freely available online — brokers don't need to work overly hard to locate your data.

Data brokers collect much of their information from public records. This includes court records, car registration information, census data, birth certificates, marriage licenses,  bankruptcy records, and divorce papers.

Brokers can also collect or purchase data from credit card providers and retailers.

If you spend a lot of time on social media or in the online world, you're giving away freely even more personal information. Data brokers might nab personal details from the posts you've made, shared or ‘liked’ online, online quizzes you've taken, online competitions you've entered and the websites you've visited.

How is your information used?

Selling your information is not too difficult for data brokers, largely due to the number of potential customers eager to purchase your personal data.

Some of these buyers will use your information to create online ads that are targeted specifically to you. Others will use it to determine how likely it is that you’ll default on a personal loan file an insurance claim or get into an car accident.

Marketing and advertising

Have you ever been browsing the web only to see a banner ad for a product you already own? Maybe an ad for washing machine powder pops up when your current supply is almost depleted. As spooky as this may seem, the simple explanation is that data brokers are likely to be behind it.

Businesses purchase your shopping and spending information from data brokers, who can tell them what brand of washing powder you’ve bought in the past and when you purchased it. This allows companies to send ads timed to when you might need to restock.

It doesn’t come as a surprise then that businesses are among some of the most active customers of data brokers, utilising your information for marketing and advertising

Fraud detection

Not all businesses are after your information for advertising or marketing purposes. Some use it for fraud detection.

Maybe you applied for an car loan. Your lender might check the information you provided on your application against the numbers that data brokers dig up. This can help lenders determine that the information you provided regarding income, debts, and salary isn't fraudulent.

Loan offers

Mortgage lenders, banks and credit companies are all interested in the amount of money you already owe, loans you’ve already paid off, payments you’ve missed, income, job history, and the properties and cars you own. They are likely to be also interested in your online browsing history.

Why? If you have a mortgage loan with a high interest rate, a mortgage lender might want to entice you to refinance to a new loan with a lower rate. If you’ve visited online car dealerships, a lender might be interested in sending you online ads promoting their own car loan products.

Or maybe you’re doing some research online for the lowest credit card rates  — credit card companies would love to know that you’re in the market for a new card! They can then tailor the ads you see online, enticing you to try their product.

People-search site

People-search sites allow you to enter the name of any person and — usually for a fee — receive their phone numbers, addresses, age, date of birth and other information. Many data brokers gather this information from public records and sell it to these sites.

Is data brokering legal?

Data brokers aren't acting illegally if they are using public records to get the information they sell.

Several countries however are taking a closer look at how data brokers operate. A 2019 report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says consumers are increasingly concerned about their data and privacy online. The ACCC have recommended a raft of major changes to Australia’s consumer and privacy laws, to extend the definition of ‘personal information’ that is legally protected.

How can I help protect my personal information from data brokers?

You can't completely make yourself invisible to data brokers, but there are steps you can take to at least reduce the amount of information they can collect from you.

  • Try installing a browser extension, which can block data trackers and adware. Privacy Badger, Ghostery and uBlock Origin all have good reputations and are recommended by experts.
  • You can adjust your online behaviour to help protect yourself from data brokers. Don’t post personal information on social media. Don’t answer online quizzes, and don’t enter online competitions. These sites all provide valuable information to data brokers.
  • Check your privacy settings regularly and make sure to delete phone apps that you are no longer using
  • You can also sign up for a VPN, or virtual private network. When you connect to the internet through a VPN, your IP address is hidden. VPNs also encrypt your data as you browse the internet, meaning that your online activity is hidden from data brokers. Just make sure your VPN doesn’t sell your data to others — it’s often best to avoid free VPNs who have been known to do this.
  • If you want to remain anonymous while surfing the web, you can connect to the Internet with the Tor browser which will help keep your online activity hidden from others. The downside? Browsing the internet with Tor can be a slower experience. Other similar private browsers you might want to try include Brave and Cliqz. 
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