Companies are turning huge profits off of your personal data. I know it; you know it—the fact that we can have a conversation about needing a new pair of sneakers and seeing an ad for Skechers in our news feed within minutes only further validates that reality.
Companies have been collecting personal information for decades, but it wasn’t until the rise of the internet and social media that data collection hit its heyday. What used to rely on long, ongoing studies and operations exploded as suddenly, everyday people were giving their likes, dislikes, and interests away for free. It was only a matter of time before developers and entrepreneurs realized the value of those interactions.
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Since then, data collection has boomed into a 138.9 billion dollar industry and projects to reach 229.4 billion by 2025. Independently, one single bit of personally identifying information isn’t all that valuable, but when combined with millions and billions of other data points, those data points can anticipate trends, drive insights, and predict action. For corporations of all industries, data collection is the closest they can get to seeing into the future. And we, as the commodities being sold, aren’t excited about it.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 79% of American adults are concerned about how our data is collected. That same study found that 81% felt the risks of data collection outweigh the benefits, while 59% have little understanding of how companies use their data. Perhaps even more telling is PEWs findings that 79% of Americans aren’t confident that companies would be willing to publicly admit their mistakes when they misuse users’ data. To say we’re uncomfortable with data collection would be putting it mildly.
Nevertheless, across industries and regions, organizations worldwide are making record profits. A few organizations, in particular, have built entire legacies on collecting, analyzing, and selling user data.
Whether it’s a social media platform, a search engine, or a cash transfer brand, data collection and sales have been a pillar of the tech industry for over a decade. However, tech brands try to avoid the data seller designation by instead “sharing” customer data with their advertising partners.
“No, we don’t sell your information. Instead, based on the information we have, advertisers and other partners pay us to show you personalized ads on the Facebook family of apps and technologies.” – Facebook Help Center.
To the surprise of no one, Facebook has built an advertising juggernaut as a first-party data miner. The platform aggregates data from its users’ interactions and messages, then shares those insights with partners and individual advertisers interested in reaching its 2.78 billion monthly active viewers. CNET has a great in-depth guide for scrubbing your Facebook data.
From search and email to maps and video, Google has integrated itself into our cultural lexicon at nearly every stage. With ad profits coming in from search placements, YouTube video advertising, YouTube TV ads, and more, the company thrives on using its technology to create curated advertising experiences—and shares that data with its active partners. You can manage what data Google can access here.
PayPal processes billions of dollars in financial transactions every year. With that power comes access to billions of personal and financial records that PayPal regularly shares with its third-party partners around the world. Those partners include banks and other payment processors like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, marketers like Salesforce and LinkedIn, and even government agencies.
Unlike the other three big tech brands, Oracle openly sells data to marketers worldwide. The Oracle Data Cloud equips business-to-business marketers with over 400 million business profiles and thousands of audience segment profiles. Opt-out here.
Similar to Oracle, Acxiom boasts “the most expansive and compliant data offering in the world ”. With over 10,000 attributes covering more than 2.5 billion consumers, Acxiom’s database covers more than 62 countries and 68% of the world’s digital population. That data is collected and sold to marketers for audience analysis and strategic planning. Opt-out here.
We all have a credit score, and these are the companies behind them. Credit bureaus work with banks, credit card issues, and finance companies along with public records to create a snapshot into your financial responsibility. Financial institutions then buy back that collected information to help them decide which customers are most likely to repay a loan or purchase a credit card. Three primary organizations dominate the credit bureau industry:
The most notorious of the three, Equifax made headlines in 2017 after a data breach exposed the social security numbers, birthdays, addresses, credit card credentials, and other personal data from over 145.4 million Americans.
Likewise, Experian collects personal data from over a billion people and organizations, then sells that information in bulk to banks and credit card companies like Citigroup or Capital One.
Sometimes the easiest way to gather customer information is to just ask for it. Be it an e-book, webinar, video series, brush pack, or promotional code, companies regularly collect personal data simply by gating it behind a registration form. By filling out the form and registering for the incentive, audiences enter themselves into the company’s lead generation system for future engagement.
According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, credit bureaus must remove you from credit card or insurance offers if you ask. You can do so here.
With the slow, inevitable demise of the phonebook comes the rise of digital sleuthing companies. These companies scour public databases to collect property records, court documents, tax data, marriage records, and other publicly available data sources. If you’ve ever looked up an old classmate or run a background check, these sites tease portions of a personal data set and provide deeper profiles for an upfront cost.
By collecting property records, court records, and social media pages, Spokeo offers reverse phone number and email lookups for inquiring minds. In 2012, the FTC fined Spokeo $800,000 for selling private data for employee screening purposes and failing to adhere to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Opt-out here.
Similarly, BeenVerified allows for everyday users to search criminal records, contact information, vehicle records, and more. Opt-out here.
While its heyday has long since passed, White Pages has found a second life in the background check and data exchange market. Opt-out here.
While legislation like the California Consumer Privacy Act has made significant progress towards regulating the collection and brokerage of personal data, CCPA’s jurisdiction ends at the state line. Outside the Sunshine State, users can request to opt-out through the URLs shared above. Right now, data brokers aren’t obligated to remove you, but industry leaders seem to agree that it is in their best interests to honor those requests, instead of drawing more attention from an already irritated public.
To date, the organizations above and similar companies have made their millions off of human collateral. Data licensing gives everyday people a chance to earn a piece of the profits. In fact, putting those dollars back into your pocket is our entire value proposition here at Invisibly. We believe humans are not commodities and that each and every person has a right to the ownership of their personal data to do with it what they will. To learn more about our vision for a more profitable data future, visit our Invisibly Bill of Rights.
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