A joker and an ace

the_newsTwo items caught my eye this holiday-shortened week.

First, a study that takes a sober look at data brokers and how they have been instrumental in compromising our online privacy.

Second, a really good documentary that looks at the wider, and thus scarier, implications of this issue.

Big Data, No Privacy

no_privacyOnline privacy left the house years ago, and it’s most definitely not coming back.

That point was underscored—yet again—by a report from the Federal Trade Commission that emerged this week. The report is “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.” Although, nearly 60 pages (PDF), it is, in this writer’s view, required reading for anyone who goes online.

The report begins with a simple declaration. “In today’s economy, Big Data is big business.” What exactly is Big Data? This is Wikipedia’s definition: Big data is a blanket term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications.

As we know from reading about the NSA, these big data sets, nonetheless, are being captured, stored indefinitely, and analyzed. In the NSA’s case, the data is ostensibly being used to prevent terrorism.

Who are the data brokers?

big-dataWhat about data brokers? Who are they and why should we care? According to the FTC report, we should care because immense amounts of data are being captured on virtually everyone who goes online, and in many cases there is little transparency about how this data is used.

The report is based on an FTC study of nine data brokers: Acxiom, Corelogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf, and Recorded Future.

I did an online search of a few of these companies, and most seem to be marketing to clients to determine “high-value” customer prospects for their goods and services.

Report summary

The data broker business model seems reasonable, but there are certainly aspects that give one pause. Here are some of the lowlights of the FTC report:FTC_logo

  • Data brokers collect and store a vast amount of data on almost every U.S. household and commercial transaction. The data brokers who were studied have information on over 700 million consumers across 3000 data sets.
  • Data brokers operate with a fundamental lack of transparency. They generally don’t interact with consumers on the data they collect. This means we can’t be sure wht data they’re collecting and how it’s being used.
  • Data brokers package and sell the data to customers, and share data with each other. Although we are told that the data is sold for “marketing campaigns” and “fraud prevention,” we don’t really know who’s buying the data, and what they’re doing with it.
  • Data brokers and buyers likely know more about us then many of our family and friends: what we purchase, our religious and political affiliations, our income, our age, what health issues we’re concerned about, our social media activity, and more.
  • Inferences are made about consumers, some innocuous like “dog owners”; others potentially private, such as “expectant parent,” “diabetes interest,” and “cholesterol focus”; still others highly sensitive focusing on ethnicity, income, and age.
  • Since there is no transparency and no accountability, the risks of unanticipated, even illegal, uses of the data are quite high. Companies or people who buy the data can make all kinds of inferences about us.
  • Also, there are no regulations about how long the data can be held onto by data brokers and to whom they can sell the data.

There is a lot more to digest in the actual report, including recommendations from the FTC such as the abilities to see what data has been collected on us, and to opt out of data collection.

Pending legislation

There is some good news: two pieces of legislation are currently pending in the House of Representatives, according to the report:

on February 12, 2014, Senators Jay Rockefeller and Ed Markey introduced a bill, entitled “Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act,” that would improve transparency of data broker practices by, among other things, requiring data brokers to make available the information they have collected about each consumer.18 Similarly, U.S. Representatives Bobby L. Rush and Joe Barton re-introduced a bipartisan bill, entitled “The Data Accountability and Trust Act of 2014,” that would improve transparency of data broker practices by, among other things, requiring data brokers to make available at least once per year the information they have collected about each consumer

As I’ve stated here on numerous other occasions, it’s important to stay informed, and if you’re concerned, contact your representative.

Terms and conditions may apply

Terms_and_conditionsAs I was drafting this blog post, I stumbled upon a documentary on Netflix entitled “Terms and Conditions May Apply.” This movie takes a look at the issue of online privacy through a wider lens and indicts a few companies, notably FaceBook and Google, in their quite substantial roles in undermining privacy.

The movie points out that FaceBook and Google have stepped up their lobbying of Congress to not legislate privacy policies that would “water down” their business models.

Some companies, notably AT&T, have gone above and beyond the call of duty, and have even profited, in providing the government with data on U.S. citizens.

Seems like the issue of our Fourth Amendment rights is gaining more visibility wherever you look, and Congress is considering legislation that would reign in the NSA and other agencies from wholesale collection of citizen data.

But, as the movie points out, there is a loophole to the Fourth Amendment referred to as third party doctrine: “knowingly revealing information to a third party relinquishes Fourth Amendment protection in that information.”

The government doesn’t have to collect data when they can just subpoena it from the plethora of data brokers, social media, and search companies collecting it already.

Buyer beware…and see this movie.

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