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Have you been to a gynecologist in the last 12 months? Ever been treated for depression? Have you been raped? Data brokers may very well know about it and are selling that information to marketers in a largely unregulated $156 billion industry.

A Senate Committee released a 36-page report today and had a hearing on its findings, which showed that the data brokerage industry -- which isn't new but has more ways than ever to collect information on us -- could be, in the words of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, more worrisome than the NSA.

Things like your credit score and medical records are not available to data brokers under federal law, but "e-credit scores" are not covered by those laws, nor are products you might buy to treat a health condition over the counter or searches you may perform about health conditions online (or searches you perform about ANYTHING online). You may not know that this information was provided to a data broker, and there's no way to find out what information, if any, a data broker has on you. It may not even be accurate, which explains why I kept getting mail from that weird matchmaking service when I was in second grade.

While the data brokers say the information is used to put people in very general profiles such as "sports enthusiast" or "avid traveler," the World Privacy Forum found a list of rape victims for sale at one data broker (the link now goes to an "updating" page. Maybe it's a coincidence! Or maybe MEDbase200 decided it would be best to take its services offline for a while until this all blows over).

Most of the time, the data is used for marketing purposes. That can include predatory lenders looking for people who fall into the "hard times" or "rural and barely making it" category. But there have been cases where it falls into worse hands. In October, for instance, it was reported that Experian sold Social Security numbers to an identity theft service posing as a private investigator.

And while data brokers are keen to have as much information as possible about you, they're not so thrilled when the tables are turned. Epsilon, for instance, declined to give the committee all the information it requested, saying: "We also have to protect our business, and cannot release proprietary competitive information."

Epsilon's databases include people who are believed to have medical conditions such as anxiety, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, insomnia, and osteoporosis, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The committee's report concludes:

As data brokers are creating increasingly detailed dossiers on millions of consumers, it is important for policymakers to continue vigorous oversight to assess the potential harms and benefits of evolving industry practices and to make sure appropriate consumer protections are in place.

Rockefeller was more emphatic than that during the hearing, saying:

We need to probe deeply and then we need to do something about [data broker] practices. We'll continue on this track. It's the dark underside of American life.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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