Data Brokers: Exposing the Hidden Dangers and Privacy Threats

by | Nov 14, 2023

In today’s technology-driven world, the alarming amount of personal information that is collected and sold without our knowledge has become a major concern. Data brokers, who power targeted advertising, are now under scrutiny as revelations shine a light on the invasion of privacy and the dangers it poses.

One troubling aspect of data brokers’ practices is the availability of sensitive information. Recent revelations have shown that these brokers trade personal matters such as “erectile dysfunction,” sexual orientation, job satisfaction, and financial circumstances. This invasion of individuals’ private lives raises concerns about privacy and exploitation.

What’s even more troubling is that data brokers offer segments to target individuals in positions of power. Judges, elected officials, military personnel, and decision-makers in national security are all fair game for data brokers. This raises serious questions about manipulation and its impact on democracy and national security.

Privacy advocates argue that even though data is claimed to be anonymous, combining data points with location and time stamps can easily identify individuals. The platforms facilitating this data exchange are aware of the vulnerability of anonymization and the harm it can cause. The fact that supposedly anonymous information can reveal individuals’ identities in sensitive professions is deeply concerning.

Real-time bidding, the process by which advertising is bought and sold based on data segments, has become a cornerstone of digital advertising. However, it has also become a means of sharing personal data. Companies like Google and Microsoft send user data to hundreds of companies for personalized advertising without explicit user consent. This raises concerns about user control over their data and the potential for misuse.

Furthermore, data sharing goes beyond national borders, as data is sent to Chinese and Russian companies, which are subject to local laws allowing access by state security agencies. The implications of this data flow, especially in terms of surveillance and exploitation by hostile actors, cannot be overstated.

The revelations about data brokers’ practices have sparked widespread concern. For example, Google has taken action by pausing ads in Russia and suspending real-time bidding partners from that country, highlighting the need for stricter regulations and oversight. While the company claims to have strict restrictions on data sharing in real-time bidding, privacy advocates argue that this is insufficient to protect sensitive personal information.

Another troubling revelation is the categorization and sale of web browsing data in greater detail than previously known. Data brokers group web users based on traits inferred from their browsing history, enabling highly targeted advertising. However, this level of detail raises questions about user consent and the potential for manipulation based on sensitive information.

The potential impacts of the collected and sold data are significant. Identifying individuals in sensitive professions can lead to extortion, blackmail, and erosion of trust in key institutions. Additionally, the sale of data related to mental health and sexual abuse support raises ethical concerns, underscoring the need for stricter regulations to protect vulnerable individuals.

An investigation by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has uncovered previously undisclosed data on the sale of personal information related to influential professions. This highlights the urgent need for transparency and accountability in the data broker industry. Users must be informed about the extent of data collection and have more control over how their information is used.

In conclusion, the practices of data brokers have raised serious concerns about privacy invasion and the potential harms resulting from unregulated collection and sale of personal information. The availability of sensitive data, the ease of identifying individuals despite anonymization efforts, and the lack of user control over their data highlight the need for stricter regulations and oversight in this industry. It is crucial to protect individuals’ privacy rights and mitigate the potential for abuse and manipulation.