What You Can Do to Protect Your Data (In Other People’s Hands)

Chloe Moore
Protect Your Data

The key to functioning as an educated participant in the modern world of data tracking and sharing is to understand who is after your data, why they’re after it, and what their end goal is. Currently, there is no better, more efficient way for a company to tailor their products and advertising than by using big data.

As we’ve mentioned before, “Big Data refers to information that can be collected about people — how we spend money, what types of products we are attracted to, our social media habits and much, much more. Companies collect this vast well of data and analyze it for trends (a process known as data analytics).”

A company can buy both the contact information and the specific details of the kinds of people that are likely to be most interested in their products. Often, there’s even less guess work happening than that. Your online browsing is usually responsible for the exact banner ad suggestions that replicate products or related pages you have looked at.

And the problem is, it’s not just an automated system that generates information and then disposes of it. Instead, data brokers are crafting sellable lists that include your name and information that is based both on actual facts as well as on what data brokers are inferring about you to be true, even if it’s not. And those lists aren’t thrown out after the marketing campaign ends, they remain in circulation for an indefinite period of time.

Table of Contents

Who Has My Data and How Are They Using It?

Perhaps a question with a shorter answer would be, who isn’t gathering data? For any company with their bottom-line in the crosshairs, data is the name of the game, and there is an entire industry devoted entirely to collecting the intel that bolsters those bottom lines.

But, it’s an industry that goes the extra mile to keep what they’re doing out of the public eye, and it’s not as straightforward as one might think. Most companies collecting data are selling that data to other companies. Tracking the path of data shared on an individual verges on impossible.

Like credit scores, consumer scores are a very real thing that can dictate the kind of options and agency someone has as a consumer.

Paul Boutin of Newsweek writes, “Instead of a straight list of names, addresses, and other info, a consumer score is a computer-generated number that attempts to predict your likelihood to get sick, or to pay off a debt. Consumer scores are similar to FICO credit scores, but aren’t regulated as to what factors can be used and how transparent the score and its contributing factors are to the scored individual.”

They aren’t regulated and they aren’t transparent, and not only that, Boutin’s piece goes on to explain that the understanding among those brokering the data is that the information is not 100% accurate. So, an individual could theoretically be paying a higher insurance premium because of an inaccurate recording of their retail purchases.

Every company cares about data, because data is how they remain relevant and how they successfully compete. Again, this is not restricted to any industries at all.

It’s a free for all:

Credit Reporting Companies: A credit reporting company remains competitive because they offer, of course, the best reporting. To do that, they’re going to collect and store the information of as many individuals as they can so that they stay relevant.  

One of the most current examples of this going awry is the Equifax breach of 2017 wherein hackers were able to steal the information of 143 million of the over 800 million individuals that Equifax stores data on. And of course, these were not 143 million willing participants, they were individuals whose highly sensitive information was gathered without their express permission by Equifax.

As we’ve noted, this shouldn’t come as a shock given the fact that tech always struggles to keep up with security, “The more access that we have to our finances, the more access thieves have to our finances as well. When the only door to enter our bank accounts was through a bank, security was tighter – though not as high-tech as it is now. These days, a variety of apps and online venues have opened up new doors to our finances.”

Social Media Sites: Did you know that an app like Instagram can sell your photos to advertisers? Have you noticed that Snapchat tracks everyone, all the time and that they use that data to allow marketers to target you in tailored ways?

Or that Facebook tracks your online decisions? If you’re logged into Facebook on a computer, and browsing the internet, Facebook tracks everything. Even if you’re not logged in, if you visit a site that features a “like” or “share” button as many do, Facebook knows you were there.

There have been multiple attempts to sue Facebook over this, and they haven’t been successful. In the words of one judge, Edward Davila, “Facebook’s intrusion could have easily been blocked, but plaintiffs chose not to do so.”

But, would it have been easy?

Insurance Companies: Insurance companies want to make sure that they’re going to be able to maintain a profit margin on all of their customers. So they’re buying information to ensure that they aren’t unprepared for the costs of someone who may utilize more of their insurance benefits than another individual. They’re purchasing past prescription drug use records, lab result records, and driving records.

And sometimes they don’t even have to buy those records. Since 1998, Progressive has utilized a data monitoring system where drivers who agree to use a tracker are eligible to rewarded for good driving and penalized for bad driving. When the Pew Research Center looked at how the public felt about this type of system, 45% said it would never be acceptable.

Among a plethora of responses from those surveyed one participant said, “I feel like this information would be used against me if I got into an accident. For example, the insurance agency will look at the data and say that I was speeding right before the accident and claim that the accident was my fault. I also feel as though law enforcement would attempt to use this information in the event of a criminal case.”

The Intersection: Again, looking at the specific industries is only helpful if we understand that the sharing of data is so hard to track, because all industries have specific things they’re interested in, but they’re sharing that info across industries. And thus, those who seek data have prime opportunity to build a comprehensive picture of who you are.

But that picture is almost impossible to see for yourself, and by extension correct.

How Safe Is My Data With Big Companies?

Okay, this next bit of information is concerning to say the very least, because data brokers have very, very little accountability. When David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times sought answers in relation to data brokers one of the individuals he spoke with was Senny Boone, the Direct Marketing Association’s general counsel. Boone said all members are obligated to trace incorrect data to the source and correct it.

Lazarus writes, “One small problem: The Direct Marketing Assn. has about 2,000 members. That’s only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of list owners and brokers out there. Another thing: While Boone said the direct-marketing industry is proud of its ‘robust self-regulatory regime,’ what we’re talking about here is the honor system.”

Plus, in the spring of 2017, a yet-to-take-effect internet privacy regulation was overturned by Congress that would have required internet service providers to ask permission before selling the information of their customers. Thus, beyond the instances when a consumer is knowingly participating in giving their data away, it is legal in some (most) instances for companies to sell that data to third-parties unknown to the consumer.

In other words, it’s difficult to conclude anything but the fact that consumer privacy is lacking.

Several years ago the FTC released a 110 page report that, among other things noted, “Many of the purposes for which data brokers collect and use data pose risks to consumers.” Both because incorrect data is collected and because some types of categorizations could potentially restrict the opportunities an individual has.

For example, someone classified as a “Biker Enthusiast” may receive both coupons from motorcycle companies as well as a higher rate from an insurance company. Which is especially worrisome if that person is not actually a biker enthusiast, but merely visits Harley Davidson a couple times a year to buy gifts for their father-in-law.

The report also had multiple recommendations including a website that would allow consumers to see what information has been gathered about them and would provide consumers the opportunity to opt out of that information being shared. But obviously lawmakers are uninterested in making such strides.

How Can I Keep My Data Secure and Private?

There are two ways we share information. The first is explicit, like when we fill out a survey in exchange for a discount or do anything that requires agreeing to terms of service. The second is implicit, and it happens all the time; it happens virtually every time an individual spends any time on the internet.

Restricting the amount of data shared begins with the understanding that almost all types of information you provide can be utilized.

Cookies: Cookies are how companies track your activity. A first-party cookie is placed by the site you’re on. Third-party cookies are affiliates of the site you’re on, they’re a separate entity that can still see what you’re doing. Most browsers have privacy settings that allow you to prohibit the use of cookies.

Some websites also allow you to set “opt-out” cookies that communicate that you don’t want them utilizing the info that tracking you provides

Do Not Track: Most browsers have a “Do Not Track” option that informs the sites you visit that you don’t want to be tracked across the web. Take note though: sites are only legally obligated to respect the setting if they’ve committed to it prior, and most haven’t.

Log-Out: Restrict what sites (especially social media platforms) can see, by not staying logged in. Better yet, use different browsers for different activities.

Update Privacy Settings: On your phone, on social sites, etc. Any opportunity to control privacy settings on a given platform should be utilized. Set a reminder to frequently check that you’ve set them so that they work for you. When a site updates them, consider actually reading the update.

Advanced Online Security: If you’re really worried about it, you can take advantage of advanced browsing options like Tor, which allow you to use the internet anonymously. Tor and similar options aren’t without drawbacks though, some websites won’t function properly if you’re using Tor.

Opt-Out In-Person: Providing companies information for a rewards or loyalty card means more than just a name and address; the companies interested in that information are also going to be considering the location, time, context, etc., to build a complete picture. Not providing that information is a method of slowing down the data being shared about you.

One major data broker paved a surprising path in 2013 by creating There, an individual can see what information the company Acxiom has on them, and they can opt out of having it distributed. At this point, they are absolutely the minority. If you ever have the chance to opt-out of data sharing, it should be taken. But, unfortunately most are under no pressure and have no desire to actually do that.

Is Securing My Data Even Possible?

All of this must be taken with a grain of salt. Prohibiting all sharing of your information would make it virtually impossible to function within society. So, it’s a fine line of giving out the information that you must so that you can participate, without throwing caution to the wind and neglecting all discrepancy.

In many cases, it’s going to be a matter of personal preference. Are you most interested in being anonymous online all the time, or do you need/want a browser that will perform well across the board? Is it more important to keep your literal location from the hands of advertisers and data brokers, or to connect with those in your life via social media?

At some point, keeping all of your information private has negative consequences on your life that have to be taken into effect. The basic reason for providing information to medical entities, insurance companies, credit card companies, etc., is that they use that information to provide services that many would cite as indispensable.

In the case of finance specifically, one of the best ways for the average consumer to achieve mobility is by achieving a high credit score that will signal to lenders that they’re a low risk. And when it comes to your credit score, there’s virtually no way of keeping all personal information from credit reporting bureaus.

So, what’s left that can be done? Be thoughtful as you share information about yourself, be vigilant over your account activity, and utilize your opportunity to leverage things such as your credit score, driving history, etc., in a meaningful way, so that the companies that you come into contact with aren’t the only ones benefiting from the relationship.

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