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Blog In Depth

What are data brokers, and are they putting you at risk?

Your data is incredibly valuable. Data brokers make enormous amounts of money by collecting information about users like you and selling it to third-parties. Imagine a database where all your interests, achievements, hobbies, employment history, and even political views are catalogued. So what are data brokers? And how can you protect your sensitive data?

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez

Mar 08, 2021 · 5 min read

What are data brokers, and are they putting you at risk?

What are data brokers?

Data brokers are companies that collect data from publicly available sources, as well as acquiring it from other businesses. And if you’re wondering what kind of data they can gather about you, think about this. How many times in the last decade have you made purchases online, tagged your location on Facebook, enabled fingerprint authentication for a device, and searched for information through Google?

When data brokers combine these random pieces of information, they can get a detailed picture of your personality. They scrape the internet for information about you, and then fill in the gaps with data bought from service providers, like your credit card or internet company.

One of the biggest data brokers, LiveRamp Holdings (previously known as Acxiom Corporation), claims to possess data on 2.5 billion people from 60 countries with 11,000 different data attributes.

Laptops, smartphones, fitness trackers, smart home devices, and other gadgets provide data brokers with invaluable information. Since we’re only getting more digitized, their job is becoming even easier. Estimates say the data brokerage industry is worth $200 billion, which proves how high the demand for these services is.

Different types of data brokers

Marketing data brokers

Regardless of the product being sold, modern marketing relies heavily on the kind of data being sold by these brokers. If you’re an avid gamer, brokers most likely know what games you like, how much time you spend playing them, and the dates of any events or gaming conventions you attended. When an online game creator wants to attract new users, they often approach marketing data brokers, and buy a database containing information about their potential customers.

Fraud detection data brokers

Fraud detection data brokers usually collaborate with banks and financial institutions. They collect information about your income, financial records, tax payments, and loans. If you want to get a mortgage and buy an apartment, the bank needs to collect as much information about you as they can to help them decide whether they should finance you or not.

Risk mitigation data brokers

Have you ever wondered why you pay more for your vehicle’s insurance than your friend who’s driving the same model? Risk mitigation brokers help companies to evaluate the level of your risk. If you have multiple speeding tickets or were involved in a car accident, the data will make your insurance more expensive.

Is collecting your data legal?

Every time you sign-up for a service and accept terms and conditions, you basically give your consent for them to collect and manage your data. Different countries have different laws specifying how data can be collected, however.

GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) protects digital rights of EU citizens. It doesn't allow companies to collect private data without a person's consent. Moreover, the data subject has a right to withdraw their consent at any time.

When GDPR was put into effect in 2018, a series of complaints were filed against data brokers, software companies, and credit rating agencies. Privacy experts believe that many data mining companies operate somewhere on the edge of the law.

In the US, several states have also introduced data privacy regulations. In 2018, CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) secured new privacy rights:

  • The right to know that businesses collect your data and how they use it.
  • The right to have your information deleted.
  • The right to forbid selling your personal information.

How much is your data worth?

The cost of your data depends on your sex, age, location, income, and other factors. If you’re a 25-year-old with a higher income, your data will cost more than that of a retiree, for example. That’s because certain demographics may spend more money in particular areas, and are worth more to advertisers.

According to a report by mackeeper, a person's data costs approximately between $0.36 to $1.80. So if you want to buy a database with 10,000 records, it could cost you up to $18,000.

In 2013, various disturbing databases were found for sale online, including deeply personal health information. Buyers could acquire a list of 1000 names, along with associated information about health conditions, for $79. While the company involved denied any wrongdoing, it’s clear that sensitive personal data is valuable, and is all too easily accessed.

What information data brokers collect

What if I have nothing to hide?

If you have bought your first computer in 2000, data brokers could now have more than 20 years of your life stored in a server. If a data broker suffers a data breach, your information might be used in cybercriminal activities.

With your leaked information, hackers can conduct phishing attacks, identity theft, and other scams. They may target your family or friends, or use your data to help them attack your employer. You think you have nothing to hide, but you don’t want hackers accessing your private data.

When your personal information is in someone’s hands, even if those hands belong to a legally operating corporation, you can never be sure how secure their servers and databases really are.

How to protect your privacy

  • Don’t overshare on social media. Your Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other accounts provide data brokers with tons of information. However, if you value your privacy, you should think twice before posting anything. We’re not saying you shouldn’t use social media, but just remember than anything you post can then be scraped by data brokers.
  • Remove yourself from a broker’s database. Some companies allow you to fill a request and have your information removed from their servers. This could significantly reduce the amount of marketing offers you receive. However, your data is most likely in the possession of multiple data brokers, so regaining complete control of your data can be a challenge.
  • Browse with private search engines. Google tracks everything you do online and shares this data with third-parties. We recommend using private search engines, such as DuckDuckGo, StartPage, or Qwant.
  • Manage app settings. Apps can collect information about you even when you’re not using them. Go through your smartphone settings and check the app permissions. Most of them can work perfectly well without accessing your location, camera, or contacts.
  • Use a VPN. A virtual private network hides your IP address and encrypts your web traffic. You can connect to a VPN server in another country and keep your real location in secret. One NordVPN account will protect up to six devices, shielding you from data mining companies. The NordVPN service also comes as a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox, so you can browse in private.

    It also has a Dark Web Monitor feature (available on iOS), which notifies you if your personal details are for sale online. Click here to download NordVPN on your device and try our other VPN features.

Take your privacy into your own hands.