What Does the Consumer Data Industry Know About You?

Ever been bankrupt? Expecting a child? A whole lot of information about who you are -- and what kind of consumer you are -- is for sale.

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Enjoy a bodice-ripping page-turner from time to time? You're on a purchasable list. (Reuters)

ProPublica's Lois Beckett has done yeowoman's work and just published an informative report on the huge variety of personal information the consumer data industry now tracks.

Here is a breakdown of her findings:

1. The Basics

  • Demographic data such as name, address, age, race, occupation, education
  • "Life-event triggers." Are you getting married? Soon to have a baby? Beckett reports that one company, Experian, updates its list of expectant and new parents "weekly."
  • Salary and wages: "A subsidiary of credit reporting company Equifax even collects detailed salary and paystub information for roughly 38 percent of employed Americans, as NBC news reported," Beckett writes. But, she adds, "that if a mortgage company or other lender wants to access information about your salary, they must obtain your permission to do so."

2. Retail information

  • One company, Datalogix, keeps track of consumer spending on store loyalty cards amounting to $1 trillion at more than 1,400 brands. Datalogix did not respond to ProPublica's inquiries for further details.
  • In one study, Beckett reports, Walt Disney explained that shared a person's name, address, and purchase history with other companies including Honda and Dannon, though a spokeswoman said that the data sharing was limited to the context of a specific joint promotion.
  • Romance-novel purchasers.
  • Donors to international charities.

3. Government records

  • The DMV has information about what you drive, and may sell that for limited purposes.
  • Voting records are public -- not whom you voted for but whether you voted at all. In some states, Beckett reports, these records "can also be bought and sold for commercial purposes."
  • Prison records
  • Bankruptcy filings

4. Health records

  • "Federal law," Beckett writes, "protects the confidentiality of your medical records and your conversations with your doctor." But that doesn't mean that no information about your health is out there. She explains:

    Data companies can capture information about your "interests" in certain health conditions based on what you buy -- or what you search for online. Datalogix has lists of people classified as "allergy sufferers" and "dieters." Acxiom sells data on whether an individual has an "online search propensity" for a certain "ailment or prescription."

  • Data including information on people who bought plus-sized clothing was bought by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, though Beckett notes that the information was purchased "for current plan members, not as part of screening people for potential coverage," in order to offer targeted free programming.

5. Online data

  • Email addresses for 80 percent of the U.S. population, linked to categories such as "estimated household income" and political leanings
  • Facebook contains tons of information about you, and if you haven't made that information private, it's out there -- how many friends you have, any additional screen-names you might use, the URL for a personal website, etc.
  • One company Beckett found tracks which social media sites a person uses and with what frequency.
  • Datalogix (again) is trying to pair retail data with Facebook data to see whether people's purchases are influenced by Facebook ads they've seen.

According to Beckett, there is at least some information available on "basically everyone in the U.S." And why do they want all this data? "Mostly to sell you stuff."

Surprise, surprise.


For more information on how to opt out (good luck) and what new privacy laws would do to protect consumers if passed (not much), head over to ProPublica's full report.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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