How Data Brokers Moved Online
Data Brokers from the 1990s to 2020s
With the popularity of the Internet in the nineties and the early 2000s, you had a proliferation of of data brokers that started operating online.
Historically, you had a lot of data brokers, like the Legacy old line ones like Acxiom, was the biggest name. Epsilon is another big one. You had these new data brokers that found that it was very easy to set up shop online.
How People Search Sites Get Your Information
Where they could go out and scrape the web. They could gather public records databases for free. They could license data from companies like LexisNexis or Acxiom or Epsilon, and then they could just publish all of that information to the Web. They could put ads on the website, and then they would have MILLIONS of pages of content indexed in Google to draw more and more eyeballs and more and more clicks when people searched for people’s names on search engines.
That became a very easy way to make money. Maybe 20 years ago, that was just sort of a recipe for success. And you saw a proliferation of data brokers starting to publish people’s information online. It was legal, it was easy, and it was profitable.
The leader in this space was WhitePages.com. They took all of this information they published on the web and they rode the coattails of the SEO plus ads frenzy in the early 2000s.
The Current State of Data Brokers in the US
According to a report by the United States Government Accountability Office, as of May 2014 there were over 4,000 data brokers in the United States alone.
These data brokers collect, compile, and sell personal information about consumers, often without the consumers’ knowledge or consent.
This information may be used for a variety of purposes, including targeted marketing, fraud prevention, and background checks.
In addition to the sheer number of data brokers operating in the United States, the amount of information that these data brokers have on individual consumers is staggering.
For example, one data broker, Acxiom, has information on over 700 million consumers worldwide and up to 1,500 pieces of information on each consumer.
Another data broker, Experian, has information on over 190 million U. S. consumers and 1 billion global consumers.
The personal information that data brokers collect is often quite sensitive and can include items such as a person’s name, address, age, gender, income level, marital status, and even their interests and hobbies.
This sensitive information is then sold to third parties without the consumer’s knowledge or consent.
The Sale of Personal Information raises Privacy Concerns
First, when personal information is collected and sold without the consumer’s knowledge or consent, the consumer has no way to know what information is being collected about them or who it is being sold to.
This lack of transparency makes it difficult for consumers to protect their own privacy. Second, the sale of personal information by data brokers can lead to identity theft and other forms of fraud.
Finally, the sale of personal information can have a chilling effect on consumer’s willingness to engage in activities online or offline if they believe their personal information will be collected and sold without their consent.
Greater regulation of Data Brokers
In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission held a workshop on data brokers and called for greater transparency from data brokers about their practices.
In 2015, Senators Edward Markey( D-MA) and Jay Rockefeller( D-WV) introduced legislation that would require data brokers to register with the Federal Trade Commission and provide greater transparency about their practices.
To date, however, no federal legislation regulating data brokers has been enacted.