pexels-photo-90807As mentioned above, during our everyday life we constantly produce digital traces, and these digital traces carry with them important personal information. So far, my research amongst parents is revealing that families don’t really care if their consumer habits are tracked and if companies sell their information. For them, the benefits of a free service outweighs the annoyance of targeted advertising, as long as the information tracked remains anonymous.

Although targeted-advertising may seem simply an ‘annoyance’, it is important to be aware of the larger picture especially by asking ourselves what role data brokers play in the age of big data.

According to a 2014 report of the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S., data brokers are basically companies that collect consumers’ personal information and re-sell it to other companies. If you have the time, it is worthwhile for you to read the findings of the report.  I found  the below quotes taken from the report extremely interesting as they give you a sense of the data brokers industry as well as the risks associated with their practices:

“Data brokers collect data from commercial, government, and other publicly available sources. Data collected could include bankruptcy information, voting registration, consumer purchase data, web browsing activities, warranty registrations, and other details of consumers’ everyday interactions. Data brokers do not obtain this data directly from consumers, and consumers are thus largely unaware that data brokers are collecting and using this information. While each data broker source may provide only a few data elements about a consumer’s activities, data brokers can put all of these data elements together to form a more detailed composite of the consumer’s life.” (FTC Report, 2014: IV)

“As to other marketing products, they may facilitate the sending of advertisements about health, ethnicity, or financial products, which some consumers may find troubling and which could undermine their trust in the marketplace. Moreover, marketers could even use the seemingly innocuous inferences about consumers in ways that raise concerns. For example, while a data broker could infer that a consumer belongs in a data segment for “Biker Enthusiasts,” which would allow a motorcycle dealership to offer the consumer coupons, an insurance company using that same segment might infer that the consumer engages in risky behavior. Similarly, while data brokers have a data category for “Diabetes Interest” that manufacturer of sugar-free products could use to offer product discounts, an insurance company could use that same category to classify a consumer as higher risk”. (FTC Report, 2014:v)

If you want to find out more about how data brokers operate this article from ProPublica is particularly interesting.