Who are Data Brokers?

Data brokers are private companies that collect and assemble your information with one purpose: to create a complete dossier on you. They do this by correlating data gathered from an enormous variety of sources, including your mobile phone.

What kind of information do they collect?

Just to begin with, it includes basic demographics such as gender, age, race, place of residence, and sexual orientation. Data brokers assemble lists of people who are going through mile-stone life events such as sending a kid to college, getting pregnant, getting divorced or buying a house.

Credit reporting companies are among the largest offenders with access to some of our most private information: how much we are paid (to the dollar) and whether we are employed, in addition to our overall credit score. This information is collected directly from your employer when a potential lender requests a credit check.

Going further, lists of people suffering the most extremely traumatic life circumstances are maintained:

  • AIDS
  • Cancer
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug addiction
  • Gambling addiction
  • Adult materials and sex toys
  • Sexual addiction
  • Mental illness
  • Heart disease

And this is all tied back to your personal dossier. The goal is to create as complete a picture of who you are as the data broker possibly can.

How does mobile data add to that picture?

Mobile data allows companies to know where you are at all times. It also lets them know how many calls you make and to whom. Your search and browsing history is stored and sent. Some stores contain bluetooth scanners that can pick up your phone’s MAC address There is no crumb left behind.

Incredibly precise conclusions can be drawn by correlating this information. Once they have large enough trove of data, they can perform pattern analysis to discover your daily habits.

How is all of this data actually used?

To learn more about their customers’ habits so that they can offer you things you may want to buy, when you are mostly likely to want to buy them.

So what?

There have been some horrifying missteps by these companies, such as the man who was sent a letter addressed to “Daughter Killed in Car Crash” and the time Target knew a man’s daughter was pregnant before he did.The sense of a dehumanizing attitude from these companies is palpable.

Additionally, over this entire industry hangs the risk that these data silos might be breached by hackers and the information published or sold to criminals on the Dark Web. In fact, as we look at the number of breaches occurring, it is easy to feel that major leaks from brokers are inevitable. As of now, 4,566 data breaches have been made public since 2005, and include prisons, insurance companies, hotels, major universities and public schools.

What can you do to stop them?

A minority of data brokers give consumers the ability to opt out of their database, but you have to trust that they’ll actually remove you. The process is, at best, awkward and complex, and you must go to each of nearly a hundred companies. You are also required to give identifying information such as drivers’ license numbers that can potentially be used to correlate your data and ensure they have the person they think they do.

Unfortunately, opting out doesn’t appear to be a good option, at this time.

Instead, get educated

SpyAware mobile app gives you the ability to see where your data is being sent, what apps are taking it, and how much is being used. You can tell if an app suddenly behaves in an unexpected way. You can see whether an app that is supposed to be doing one thing is actually doing another, such as when a popular flashlight app was found to be using location data.

Upload your apps’ behavior data

Soon, SpyAware will give you the option to upload apps behavior data to a public privacy database. By aggregating this behavior data, we (and you) will be able to see what apps are doing over a large number of devices.

SpyAware only records the apps’ actions. It does not collect any identifying data about you, your device ID, your location, your contacts or any other information that could tie these transactions back to you. We want to be absolutely certain that we are not creating a honey pot that will draw hackers in the future.

And by creating this database, the public and researchers will have the opportunity to study what apps are doing. We are seeing an entirely new data ecology that has evolved in the last 10 years that most people are almost entirely unaware of. By studying it, we can begin to see who is behaving ethically and tell you even more accurately what apps are a danger to your privacy.

Help change regulations

Mobile data collection is only estimated to grow in the future. We need to start putting protections in place, now (although five years ago would have been better).

In some jurisdictions, such as the European Union, there is now a “right to be forgotten”, or deleted from a database. The US doesn’t yet have these rules.

The FCC is currently investigating data use practices. If they can show political will for these efforts, that will help them to continue to reform the rules that govern how your information is handled.

This is why we put an FCC complaint form on the SpyAware Take Action screen. By filling this out, you can help the FCC demonstrate that the average user is concerned.

Ha, that’s funny. Who’s going to care about a complaint form?

I know, I’ve been asked to do things like this before, and at first, it doesn’t seem like it will do much good to fill out a form and send it. But together with the apps’ behavior data that shows where your information has been sent, it is hard evidence that the FCC does not currently have.

Moreover, you may feel that there are giant companies with a lot of money trying to stop these efforts, and there are. But, especially in today’s media climate, they can’t be overt about their actions, whereas your submission is a genuine testimonial to the abuses, as they are happening. And that is very valuable.

Once you know what’s going on, you can also get involved groups like theElectronic Frontier Foundation.

I wish I could give you a foolproof set of steps to take:

  1. Navigate to screen X
  2. Tap button
  3. ????
  4. No more data broker profits

But I can’t.

Data companies have had free reign for a long time, and goverments and customers haven’t been able to keep up. That’s not going to change tomorrow, but with your help, it will change very soon.