Data For Sale: Brokers Selling Info on Rape Victims and Alcoholics

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Data Brokers are selling personal information including lists of rape victims, alcoholics, and people with erectile dysfunction disorder. After reading that statement you should not only feel outraged, but should also be thinking: is this legal?

The data brokering business has been under investigation for its secretive and sometimes overreaching activities. This issue was really highlighted in December 2013 after a year long investigation by the Senate. World Privacy Forum, Executive Director Pam Dixon first revealed some of these intrusive lists and outlined the concerns that should be made clear to consumers, when she testified in Congress. She argued that the release of such data could put people in danger. For example, a list of “rape victims” can be placed in the hands of a sexual predator or a profile of a senior citizen facing issues with dementia could make them vulnerable to scam artists. Dixon further explained that while some data broker companies provide an opt out policy, most of them do not. Furthering this issue is that most people do not even know that they are on these lists compiled by data brokers. 

Now I understand that this whole thing sounds very illegal and very sketchy. While yes, it is sketchy, it is unfortunately also legal. Scott Howe, CEO of Acxiom, one of the giants of the data brokering business, explains  that data brokering as an act of collecting data about people. These data profiles are then offered to businesses who can create relevant advertising. This seems harmless, right? That is only because this is a very skewed definition. In reality, data brokering has become a $156 billion industry that capitalizes on packaging all of our most personal information to sell it to advertisers including our movements both online and off.

Acxiom, holds profiles on over 200 million Americans. This is scary on so many different levels; one, because most of us do not even know that these profiles are being created and two, because of the information that make up these profiles. Think anything is safe? It really is not. Let’s check off the aspects of daily life that make up your personal profile, which is most likely filed somewhere in a broker’s filing cabinet. Medications? Check, if you have an illness, data brokers can sell the information to an advertisement company to capitalize on your particular condition. Alcoholism, depression, sexual orientation? Check, check, and check– along with most other personal information that you would hope to remain private. It would surprise many of us as to how willing retailers are to sell this information to data brokers.

The catch to the whole thing is that it is basically legal. Data brokers are legally required to maintain the privacy of customers data if it is used for employment, credit, insurance, or housing but that is it. At least we can be thankful that medical information is protected by our doctors who legally cannot sell it. Well, while doctors cannot share your medical information, data brokers have access to the purchase history of over the counter drugs as well as other medical products.

Now that I’ve horrified all of you into never using the Internet again or a credit card to make another purchase for that matter, let us look at what is being done to improve the situation.

Well, I will say that not much has been done in this past year to reform the data broker business. However, a conversation has started about the dark side of this industry, which is admittedly better than nothing. The Federal Trade Commission has called for more transparency within data brokering. While this is a good start, overall the government needs to take more action on regulating the dissemination of information. The government should work to prevent unsafe or harmful lists from circulation. If their actions are meant to benefit consumers by personalizing advertising, then please, let them educate consumers on the actions that they are taking. Believe me, we would all like to know.

Furthermore, opt out procedures should be widespread and clear. If we do not want our personal information compiled into a profile of our medical purchases or food orders, then we should have the right to say no. We may not be able to completely stop data brokers from doing their job, but we can at least prevent the spread of incorrect information or try to regulate the lists that are circulating with the help of government action and an opt out policy.

[Forbes] [CBS News] [CNN]

Taylor Garre
Taylor Garre is a student at Fordham University and formerly an intern at Law Street Media. Contact Taylor at



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