What is Internet Privacy? Part 1: Data Brokers

Michael From our Perspective

Here at LiquidVPN, we obviously take internet privacy very seriously. We provide a top of the line service that is one of the best ways to remain anonymous on the internet. Although there is no end all to internet privacy, a VPN service like LiquidVPN, that keeps no logs of your surfing habits is the best way to go.

But many people, even those in the US and UK where mass surveillance is strongest, sometimes don’t know why taking measures to protect yourself online is imperative. Many netizens are under the notion that you only need a service like LiquidVPN if you are doing something shady, i.e. illegal.

What Internet Privacy is Really About

But that simply isn’t the case. Being able to surf the web anonymously goes much further than being able to buy drugs or watch Netflix. VPNs provide a means for businesses to communicate securely between the main office and remote offices around the world. A VPN does this by creating a secure, encrypted tunnel between the two sites.

Furthermore, having privacy on the internet and being free from surveillance protects our civil liberties, protects your individual identity and interests that many companies sell, and provides a means for whistleblowers and human rights activists to voice their opinions without fear of retribution.

Your Information is a Commodity

Companies known as data brokers collect, analyze, package, and sell information gathered about you from hundreds of sources. The sources range from websites, third party trackers, pizza parlors, the DMV, medication retailers, social media sites, and the lists goes on.

As Tim Sparapini (who was a privacy lawyer for the ACLU, and then became Facebook’s first director of public policy) says,

Most retailers are finding out that they have a secondary source of income, which is that the data about their customers is probably just about as valuable, maybe even more so, than the actual product or service that they’re selling to the individual. So, there’s a whole new revenue stream that many companies have found.

He goes on to say about medication and illnesses that; “You can buy from any number of data brokers, by malady, the lists of individuals in America who are afflicted with a particular disease or condition.” There are data brokers who collect and release information about: alcoholism, depression, psychiatric problems, and history of genetic problems.

Your sexual orientation isn’t safe either, how would they find that out? “Well, based on a series of other data points they bought and sold. What clubs you may be frequenting what bars and restaurants you’re making purchases at, what other products you may be buying online.”

“Paramount Lists” headquartered in Erie, Pa., offers lists of people with alcohol, sexual and gambling addictions, as well as people desperate to get out of debt.

This can all be sold to a perspective employer, or to another data broker to bolster their profiles, or hacked.

If you’re doubtful about that any company could have that much information about you look no further than the largest data broker, Axciom. Not much is known about Axciom, but they know a lot about you. They claim, that on average, they have 1,500 pieces of information on 200 million Americans.

There are literally thousands of companies like Axciom.

There are many programs available to expose and block some of the means that companies use to track you. Disconnect is a software program that reveals 3rd party trackers when you visit a site.

During a 60-Minutes interview (the transcript is a very interesting read, here it is) on CBS, a visit to NewYorkTimes.com, “revealed the presence of more than a dozen third parties that the website had allowed in to observe our movements.”

They even found the same thing when visiting their own 60-Minutes website.

In the Name of the King: Profits

More profits is the reason this whole multibillion dollar industry is emerging. It’s operating in the background with minimal oversight. Collecting this type of information allows companies to target consumers like never before.

As this Forbes column outlines: “Imagine that you are halfway through the second week of a grueling diet. It’s been going alright – but lunches are always the hardest for you. You walk out of your office building to get a salad, when suddenly, you get a text message. It’s from a nearby restaurant offering you a discount on your favorite burger, encouraging you to “cheat just this once” and they’ll throw in a free side of fries. Somehow the company behind the advertisement knew what foods you like, when you’d be craving them, how much you’d be willing to pay, and the pitch most likely to get you through their doors.”

In other words, the main problem with the way advertising is conducted online isn’t so much about privacy – it’s about control.

-Tarun Wadhwa, Forbes

It’s not just third party tracking where these data brokers get their information. They also have access to social media sites like OkCupid, Facebook, Plenty of Fish, Twitter, and many others where users freely give information about themselves in order to connect with others. What they are really connecting with are corporations.

Julie Brill, the head of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), admits that the thousands of companies that compiles this information do also identify you as an individual. They, create dossiers that have a name, your name, attached to it.

Even though some sites don’t ask for a user’s real name, data brokers can use the IP address and the computer ID number to match that information with other online identifiers. There are even firms that specialize in doing just that.

Data Brokers Unleashed

I’m not saying this information isn’t useful or shouldn’t be collected. Heck, a sort of consumer targeting has been going on for decades.

However, with the internet the stakes are raised. The sheer volume and new, sensitive nature of information collected both from PC surfing and our mobile devices is changing the game.

Add that to the fact that most people are simply unaware of this and there is a potentially volatile situation at hand.

An FTC report which takes into account 1,400 commercial web sites found that: 85% of the sites it visited collect personal information from consumers, only 14% had posted any privacy-related notices, and only 2% had posted comprehensive privacy policies.

What should be the goal now is to limit the effectiveness of these schemes. We can do this by either providing legislation for more consumer rights, making more people aware of the situation- and therefore- make better decisions pertaining to their internet privacy, and creating a more transparent system in the way and amount that information is collected.

As Tarun Wadhwa from Forbes puts it;

Nobody likes being the “sucker” – the problem is the system is designed so that you’ll never find out if you’re being taken advantage of.

feature image courtesy of Thierry Gregorius 

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