Would you sacrifice your online privacy for easier-to-use websites and more relevant ads?


Many people agree they would give up their privacy in order to have easier-to-use websites. Many also agree it’s worth giving up their privacy for more relevant ads.

At one point I would have agreed that giving up my privacy was worth getting easier-to-use websites and better, more personalized ads. But after reading more about “ad brokers” like Axciom, Epsilon and Experian to name just a few, I believe the current laws in the U.S. and the ability for the FTC to enforce them are totally inadequate. I feel the same way about non U.S. geographies as well. While most European countries have more restrictive rules they still seem inadequate. Most of what I describe below relates more to the U.S., but similar problems exist in Asia, while the problems may be less so in Europe.

In my opinion, individuals should be able to choose for themselves whether or not to provide personal information on the web. However, I believe they should recognize that information provided on different web sites are being patched together by data brokers and sold. It’s not often understood by website visitors, mobile web and app users that their information is being sold, shared and pieced together to provide a more complete set of their personal information. So while it may seem safe to provide a your name and address when buying a product online, your browsing history can be matched to your name and address by companies looking to connect the dots and sell your data to other companies.

In the reference transcript of a 60 minutes episode “The Data Brokers: Selling your personal information”, several examples of data brokers are described.  Here are a couple examples of what is being done by data brokers using a combination of data provided to web sites and anonymous browsing:

  • Lists of people indicating their sexual orientation are built and sold by using a set of data points such as clubs visited, bars and restaurants where purchased are made, products bought online, sites visited online, etc.
  • A company called “Paramount Media” sells list of people who they believe are addicted to alcohol, sex and gambling
  • “Response Solutions” sells lists of people suffering from bipolar disorder.
  • “ExactData” sells lists of people who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases.

Many data brokers build and sell these lists without breaking any laws. They are able to do this for several reasons, with the key ones being i) most sites bury notifications that personal data provided can be sold or shared, in pages of legalese that most site visitors do not read when registering or purchasing online, ii) 3rd party ad networks can capture browsing history and associate this data with so called anonymous data such as IP addresses, browser type and version, computer ID, etc., iii) ad brokers have and continue to spend considerable time matching so called anonymous data with purchased lists of information that contain names, addresses, etc., iv) mobile sites and mobile apps can capture geo locations of places visited to tie both online and offline data to names and addresses. Of course, IP addresses change and other issues exists making it challenging to create accurate lists, but data brokers invest heavily in creating and maintaining these lists while consumers purchasing these list continue to value this data even though it is imperfect.

According to privacyrights.org, “there are no current federal laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes.  Consumers generally have no federal right to know what information data brokers have compiled about them for marketing purposes. No federal law provides consumers with the right to correct inaccuracies in the data or assumptions made by data brokers.”

While registering on an commerce or social site may seem harmless, web users should recognize the efforts and motivation of online retailers to sell information as a secondary method of generating revenue, of ad networks capturing browsing history to profile individuals, of Data Management Platforms (DMPs) for further profiling and segmenting individuals and of course ad brokers for building more complete peronal profiles for both online and online behavior.

Until policy, laws and enforcement are in place to ensure people’s information will not be mis-used and possibly their lives damaged, I’m not for the status quo where information on individuals is pieced together and can injure or harm individuals by making their private information public. As a result, I try to avoid providing my personal data to sites and contributing to the profit of ad brokers. I’m fine dealing with less personalized sites and ads and am hopeful more progress is made towards safe guarding personal identifiable information.

A reasonable and common objection to my view is that the internet is a public forum and should not be considered a secure environment for personal data. However, in my opinion the internet has become an essential for many individuals to do business, to communicate and to maintain heath and financial records. I’m hoping the Internet can evolve to more appropriately manage and secure personal data. In the mean time, I’ll limit the data I share.

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