Data Brokers: The Best Explanation of What They Are, 2021

We have all read those super-thriller espionage novels, or been engrossed in an action movie where a character references “going off the grid”. This may make for a strong TV and movie trope, the sense of mystery that surrounds the unknown for the character. However, what would “going off the grid” actually entail in the current digital age?

Sure, 50 years ago going off grid was a piece of cake, figuratively. Move to a different city and don’t call people from your past life: the end. Nowadays, though, you’d need to be born off-grid and have fanatically maintained insulation from the tentacles of the modern-day data collection machine, avoiding data brokers and people search websites scraping information around the clock.

The Advent of Data Brokers in Mass Public Data Collection

Data brokers consistently search for your digital fingerprints. They collect and save every scrap they can find, and compile this into common profiles, selling your information to anyone willing to buy it for their people search websites. Your teachers were right, your permanent record is real.

But where does this data come from? That’s the most shocking part: it comes from you. Every transaction you make, every new step in your digital footprint, adds yet another piece to a constantly growing puzzle that is your digital history.

Does this bother you? If so, take a look at our free opt out guides to see if you can remove your public-facing personal information from these people search websites. Lacking the time to go through the tedious and manual opt out privacy? That’s where services such as Removaly Defender come in. See more about our service offerings.

Where Do Data Brokers Get Your Data?

The easiest method for data brokers to gather your information is from when you willingly hand over your data to third parties. Signing up for store loyalty accounts or discount cards? Congratulations, your data is being stored and sold. When you make shopping trips, your purchase history goes into databanks and are tracked, sold, and traded by data brokers around the world.

Example: Grocery Stores

But why do grocery stores need your data? The answer is simple: to make market decisions with everything from advertising to inventory to the psychology of customers. This data can help to monitor how quickly broccoli sells, when to lower the price, and when to move it to a different part of the produce aisle.

However, it also provides data brokers with deep pockets information about your purchasing habits, whether it be chicken soup, tissues, ginger ale, or ice cream. Ever wonder how that ad for cold medicine randomly decides to show up in your daily life?

Example: End User License Agreements (EULA)

Another place you freely handed out your permission may be hidden deep in the last EULA you agreed to without reading. Anyone can develop an app, and lurking in that EULA may be permission to track and sell your data. 

Think about this before power-scrolling past this fine print on those free apps. They may not cost you money upfront, but someone is going to get paid.

The Role of Social Media In Personal Data Availability

Social media is here to stay and it only seems we’re getting deeper and deeper into the mire with no respite in sight. Every year there are a few more platforms to sign up for while the old guard holds steady with those of us already comfortable with them. The more popular a social media site is, the more hitchhiking data brokers it will sustain.

Think of it as a farm, and the feeding trough is the social media platform. We’re filling this thing up with just about every single detail about our personal lives, it is working its way into our daily routines, and by its very nature, compels us to share data with our friends.

Well, a trough that full is going to attract plenty of flies. Those flies are feeding on the very same data you’re putting out there for Aunt Sally to see. That quiz about your favorite X, Y, Z from Brenda the girl in accounting, that kind of stuff is like sweet nectar for those data brokers obscured by the thin veneer of harmless social media.

How Data Brokers Get Your Info From Social Media

Like a good sleuthing detective, the data brokers run some background information against your growing profile and compare and contrast your information against readily available statistics as well. Government entities are going on-line for our convenience and to meet the growing demand for our Internet-based lifestyle.

This means that you don’t need to go downtown and fill out a form to pull up your account. But it also means the data brokers also have access to that shortcut. When the data-banks were old paper files in a basement, someone had to be actively interested in you specifically enough to go to a building and file the release.

Now that we’re going on-line; property records, DMV, law enforcement, social security, voting registration… nearly every government regulatory system is available for searching and now your data can be caught up in the sweep.

The Trade: Data Brokers Buying From Data Brokers

Another way these data brokers get your information is they buy it from other data brokers. Like a growing intelligence, they cross-pollinate and share their data files to strengthen and consolidate their lists. The more complete the digital profile is, the more it is worth to prospective buyers. 

If one data broker specializes in mining the data-banks of the grocery store loyalty cards, and another broker is making his list from city property records, when these two combine their lists, they now have the complete shopping habits of a very specific address. Now cross this list against a dozen more, and a dozen beyond that until they now have your profile so accurate, they can tell you what you had for breakfast, and they’ll be right.

What do Data Brokers Do With Your Information?

This question has a very simple answer; they sell it. Data brokers are in the market of gathering information, compiling it into useful lists and then selling those lists to organizations that will then use that information in any way they see fit. 

The escalation of social media and the proliferation of personal information people are willing to share publicly only makes the data broker’s job easier. The image of these third party data collectors has gone from rooting through your garbage cans for old bank statements to a faceless entity sitting behind a laptop working for a multi-million dollar industry.

What Data Brokers Want

The information they gather about you is a growing puzzle that becomes more and more accurate with every piece they collect. Any pattern can be difficult to see when there is only a single data point, but we are pumping out thousands of pieces of information about ourselves every single day, often without realizing it. 

These data brokers aren’t just after your financial statements or medical records, they want to know everything about you from where you shop for groceries to how often you stop for gasoline. The more they know, the more complete your profile becomes and therefore the more valuable it is when they sell it.

Why Is This A Big Deal?

You may not think it’s a big deal that a third party knows observable details about you. Anyone with a willingness to follow you around can see that your regular Thursday routine is to stop for coffee at ABC-Coffee shop in the morning before driving to work at DEF-Company, and then shopping for groceries at GHI-Mart, before having dinner at JKL-Diner. 

This is slightly creepy and depending on local regulations, could be considered stalking. Especially when all this loose information is compiled together and it’s no longer random, it is a well-defined alphabet of your routine. Now imagine that profile includes things that aren’t quite so publicly available, such as private medical conditions, political ideology, religious affiliation, financial situations…  That profile is worth money to the right buyers.

The Threat Posed By Advertising

Advertising is everywhere. They’ve been selling ad space on everything for as long as consumers wanted “the other” brand, which is to say, nearly forever and the advertisers are always looking to catch your eye and get you to purchase their products. If they can learn your habits, they can learn how to better sell you a product. 

Wildly popular advertising campaigns and slogans can only go so far in attracting the average consumer. By purchasing actual consumer profiles, they can look over your personal habits and tendencies and then they have detailed precision points on how, when, and where to strike so that you will notice the ad. 

There is the story of the chain department store targeting a shopper with advertisements for baby maternity clothes and baby food before her pregnancy was announced all based on the vitamins and lotions she was buying. This is the power of compiled statistics, they can interpolate this data and make surprisingly accurate predictions that they then use to make us want their products.

When Data Brokers Team Up With Advertisers

Companies will also purchase these data broker’s lists directly. The advertisers are more about getting you to want to purchase the product and they are looking to target you as accurately as possible, but companies that produce the product will fine-tune their process depending on their market’s desires. 

If they can manufacture their widgets more to your liking, or if they can model their services after your whims… any trend they can see in the data and create a need that only their product can resolve, they will have you purchasing it before you even understand why you want it in the first place. Selling to a demographic becomes infinitely easier when you know absolutely everything there is to know about that demographic.  Once these companies purchase your profile, they tear it apart looking for their way into your wallet.

When Data Brokers And Advertisers Team Up With The Government

Beyond the sales pitches and customized products, your highly detailed data profile is also being sold to government agencies. The wild-west playground of the Internet has been a free-for-all and rules, regulations, and laws are slow to keep up. 

As of right now, there is nearly zero regulation on data brokers and nothing to keep them honest, or even to define what “honest” is. However, there are strict existing laws that protect your privacy from law enforcement snooping without reason and due process such as a warrant. 

And now with the purchase of your profile from a data broker, they have a way around those laws. They can legally purchase your profile and learn things about you that they’d never pick up under conventional means.

How To Avoid Data Brokers Getting Your Information

It’s not about having anything to hide, it’s about knowing where your data ends up. Data brokers sell to anyone willing to buy, and nearly anyone that knows how to game statistics is buying. Your profile is worth money to advertisers, companies, governments, and the dark unknown beyond.

If the information above about the wild world of data brokers causes you concern, we highly recommend utilizing opt out services to ensure that your data remains as private as possible in the public space.