4 Oct 2022

What are Data Brokers and Why Do I Need to Know?

In an interview with data journalist Ben van der Merwe from the New Statesman, we explore how data brokers work and what this means for our personal information.

When thinking about online privacy, most people think about the companies and platforms you are directly interacting with. These are, after all, the only people that have data about you, right? Wrong. Many people are unaware of the existence of data brokers – companies whose entire business model is collecting data about you and selling it on.

How are they able to do this? In the EU, GDPR states that users must give consent to allow their data to be collected and sold – which led to the ‘accept all’ button endlessly invading our screens since 2018. But have you ever stopped to get to grips with what you are accepting, when you accept all?

Data brokers thrive on selling information because we have said it’s ok. Stop and read the small print and you’ll see you are often giving your permission for your personal data to be repackaged and sold on to countless ‘partners’.

Does it matter if our data is sold?

So we are sharing data with companies who sell it on. But does it really matter?

For starters – it’s not fully transparent. It’s a practice that slips under the radar and many people are totally unaware it happens. This, combined with the fact that large amounts of money are being made because of our lack of awareness, and things look even more murky.

Secondly, even the companies you are interacting with cannot be sure where your information ends up. And here lies the big issue.

Ben van der Merwe, a data journalist, explains;

‘One of the biggest problems is social media companies collecting a lot of data on people, selling it onto data brokers and even they don’t have any idea where it ends up.

‘There are examples of US immigrations enforcement using that data to find undocumented migrants and deport them. There’s a risk of data brokers selling that information onto state police forces that might want to prosecute women for seeking abortions across state lines. It’s a big problem that I’m not sure all the social media companies are taking that seriously’.

This is where profiling goes dark. It’s not just about whether you like dog videos, or are likely to buy a car – the profiles being built on us are much more invasive.

‘There was a case recently in the US with an app for Muslims in the US to help them time their calls to prayer’, explains Ben. ‘It was then found the app was not only selling their location data to a data broker but that data broker was then selling it on to the US government, which for some reason was interested in having it.’

Are data brokers a problem?

These are extreme examples – but how big a problem actually is this? Are data brokers a problem?

‘It’s definitely gotten out of control’, says Ben

‘If each company was collecting data and just using it for their own analytics, I don’t think that would be such an issue. But the real problem comes when you’re combining those data sets and other data sets and you’re creating this incredibly rich profile of individual people which is of course incredibly valuable to marketers. With these profiles, you know how to target people and where their weak points are”.

These profiles surely can’t give brokers enough information to really identify us individually, though?  Sure there isn’t enough information to make us easily identifiable?

‘Brokers often say their data is anonymised – so you can’t search an individual’s name and find them. But what we’re seeing – particularly recently with brokers selling their information to ICE [the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency] is that they’re specifically boasting about the ability for you to de-anonymise the data.

‘If you put all the demographic variables that they give you together, you can find out who someone is without having to be given their name. So if you wanted to find out information about a football player or a politician, and you had the money to spend on these data sets from data brokers, it really wouldn’t be that hard.’

Is there an opportunity here?

Prevalence of our personal data online isn’t guaranteed to cause you problems – but it is a significant risk. From making you more likely to be targeted by scams, to potentially being turned down for a mortgage based on false information, there are many reasons why it pays to read the small print. By virtue of the way our online world works, every day you are telling people a lot about yourself.

Can you avoid data brokers? Not easily, says Ben.

‘At this point you have to be living the life of a secret agent to have a clean online presence. It’s really hard to get by without creating huge amounts of data everyday’.

However, there is a huge opportunity here for companies to do better. If a brand can prove your data will not be sold on to brokers, this could create a significant opening.

‘It’s not just a question of trusting the brand’, explains Ben, ‘it’s trusting who they sell your information on to’.

The opinions, comments and views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.