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Saturday, April 02, 2011

How to protect yourself from data brokers

Every day a collection of companies and individuals search the vast universe of public records and gather information about you. They’re the same companies, in many instances, that advertise that you can find out who’s looking for you or get information on other people.

Not to be too scary, but once that information gets around, it’s hard to get it back.

It could include anything from your home phone number to where you live and used to live, when you got married and to whom, and what you paid for your house. The information, largely, is contained in public records. For many, it’s not information you would freely post to the web. But in today’s world of sharing all sorts of information on social networks, sometimes it is, and that information can often be found and shared, too.

“Consumers should be concerned because it is virtually impossible to prevent your information from being collected, repackaged and sold to the highest bidder,” said Amber Yoo, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

One company came up with the idea of selling consumers the right to have their personal information turned invisible. US Search charged about 5,000 people $10 a piece to “lock” their records. The company was accused of misleading consumers by the Federal Trade Commission and last week agreed to settle the case and give back everyone’s money.

But privacy rights activists say this was no victory for consumers, since nothing about the ruling deals with how these companies should conduct business, and really just highlights the vast concerns about firms trying to profit from collecting personal information about you.

“The bigger problem is that FTC decisions finding that companies were deceptive do nothing to establish clearer privacy standards,” said Washington, D.C.-based privacy consultant Bob Gellman. “The Commission needs to issue rulings that specific practices are unfair.”

This business of data brokers — more than 100 of them have been documented by Privacy Rights Clearinghouse — is growing and includes everything from very large companies to one-person operations.

The more there are, the harder it is to prevent the spread of the information, which can be purchased or used by anyone from your neighbors to marketing companies to even potential employers.

If you’re concerned about controlling this information, you can try to opt out of the databases — some make that easy. Others don’t. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has links to the brokers who have opt-out provisions.

This is an unregulated world. While the FTC will weigh in on specific acts by some companies — in this case charging for something that couldn’t be delivered — the government is not setting any kind of ground rules here.

“The data broker industry is really the Wild West,” said Yoo, the spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “There is little legislation regulating what they can and can’t do. Each data broker unfortunately has their own mechanism for opting out — so you have to go company by company. Some of them don’t provide any mechanism to opt out, making it impossible to entirely restrict all of your information. Even worse, some make you pay to have your own information removed.”



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