John Oliver, the host of comedy news show Last Week Tonight, recently turned his wit to the hot privacy topic of how unethical data collection practices by data brokers can threaten your security and privacy.
Data brokers – essentially large companies that collect data – process a melting pot of personal information from consumers, Oliver noted. Data brokers are also “monitoring our activities a little bit closer than we would like,” the British-American host added.
Oliver brought a pinch of humor to his 25-minute expose on the subject, but it’s worth breaking down some of the troubling facts revolving around this multi-billion dollar business.
Most data brokers use the same data collection processes to gather as much information as possible on individuals.
They start by combing through public records such as census data, birth certificates, property records, vehicle registration records, marriage licenses, divorce records and voter registration information.
The process of gathering personal information doesn’t stop here though.
Companies specialized in collecting and trading user data also use the information gathered by apps installed on your smart devices, scrape publicly available social media profiles, buy anonymized credit card and transaction information, use third-party cookies, and even use the information you submit via loyalty card services and online surveys.
Just imagine millions upon millions of data entries on individuals cataloged for maximum profit. This includes names, all known addresses, date of birth, gender, marital status, education background, job, phone number, email addresses, interests, hobbies, shopping habits, criminal records and even Social Security numbers.
Data brokers make enormous amounts of money by collecting information about users like you and selling it to third parties, including government and law enforcement agencies who use it for election campaigns, criminal investigations and other purposes.
On his show, Oliver’s remarks touched on a darker side of data broking organizations' trading practices. In a notably unsettling incident, a woman was killed after a stalker secretly acquired her information for just $45.
The horrific story may seem far-fetched, but malicious individuals and stalkers sometimes go to extreme lengths to find sensitive information about their victims.
Compiled lists of consumer data can also facilitate scams and can be used to defraud unwary consumers. In one recent case, Epsilon, one of the world’s largest marketing companies, agreed to pay $150 million after it sold the data of millions of US citizens to spammers targeting senior citizens with e-mail-based fraud schemes, including sweepstakes and astrology solicitations.
Among the most significant threats stemming from these business practices are data breaches. Troves of user data are highly profitable on the dark web as they facilitate a variety of illicit activities including identity theft crimes, phishing and account takeover attacks.
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