by Bob Cole, Director of Exploratory Initiatives and Partnerships

In Data (v.), Jer Thorp, innovator in residence at the Library of Congress, writes, “Data is not inert, yet its perceived passivity is one of its most dangerous properties.” In the United States information brokers have long been in the business of selling consumer information to companies to send us unsolicited junk mail. In a digital economy driven by big data, corporations have become increasingly sophisticated and decreasingly transparent about the wide swath of data they collect and store about us from commercial, government, and other digital sources. Corporations like the big five—Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, and Apple— along with big data brokers, are profiting from the business of tracking our buying habits, online behavior, family, friends, politics, finances, health, and more.

Personal data is packaged and sold to clients in different industries typically for three purposes: marketing, fraud prevention, and people search. According to a 2014 Federal Trade Commission report, “brokers use not only the raw data they obtain from these sources, such as a person’s name, address, home ownership status, or age, but also certain derived data, which they infer about consumers.” While new forms of personalization and interest-driven advertising are being supported by data brokers, the same demographic information can be a source of discrimination or “digital redlining” of vulnerable groups.

Similarly, while personal search services make it easier to locate lost friends or relatives, this data can also be a source for digital harassment. In “Doxxing to Defend Student Privacy”, author and education technology critic Audrey Watters writes, “there is a big difference in having [personally identifying] information publicly accessible… and having it broadcast across the Internet with the express purpose of having that data be used for punishment. Because that’s what happens when you’re doxxed.” The lack of consumer controls and the frightening rise of online harassment tactics like doxxing and swatting should concern us all. Harassment that seeks to traumatize or threaten violence against those who disagree or voice critical points of view should give pause to anyone who cares for the vitality of our communities, democratic institutions, and public spheres online and off.

Our susceptibility to the risks of these practices may seem distant, but when you look closer, you may be surprised by how much of your online behavior and personal information is shared without your knowledge. Luckily, we can begin to rewrite the terms of our asymmetrical relationships with the hundreds of existing data brokers by taking a few steps to limit what corporations and brokers are collecting and sharing about you:

  • Block Third Party Cookies – A cookie is a bit of code that a website will deposit on your computer used to help funnel information about you as you browse around the web. First, check your browser privacy settings and add “do not track”  and cookie-blocking options. You might also experiment with Ghostery, a tool designed to block trackers.
  • Silo your Surfing – Use different web browsers for different activities to limit the kinds of data that might be shared across platforms; e.g., don’t shop online while you are logged into Facebook.
  • Hack your Loyalty – Store loyalty card programs are a popular source of information for data brokers. Consider using an alias and a different phone number or to skip these programs altogether.
  • Opt Out of Personal Search Sites – Visit, a well known people-finder site with an opt-out feature. Search for yourself by entering your full name or a current address, but avoid entering your email address. Take stock of the information presented. Visit Spokeo’s opt-out page and follow the steps, but consider a “burner email” address (try: Maildrop or Slippery) when removing your listing so that you avoid sharing more data. Keep an eye on your temporary email for updates from Spokeo, wait 24-48 hours and then re-visit Spokeo to see whether your listing is findable. If you’re still concerned, read Ken Gagne’s, “Doxxing defense: Remove your personal info from data brokers” which reviews people finder sites that have been cited for being used to doxx people. Note these caveats when opting-out:
    — Opt-out identification requirements will vary. Some request multiple forms of identification, creating a kind of catch-22 of data verification.
    — Avoid sharing more personal data with these services.
    — These sites scrape the web regularly which can trigger your information being re-listed. Until we have digital privacy protections the burden is on us, so plan to check back if you have recently had a milestone event like a change of address.
  • Block Website Trackers Involved in Digital Fingerprinting – We recommend watching the first episode of the interactive web documentary series “Do Not Track” which demonstrates how current adtech works behind the scenes. Next install This effective anti-tracking tool helps you visualize companies and services that track data derived from your web browsing. Disconnect’s privacy policy states, “We don’t collect your IP address or any other personal info, except the info you volunteer.”

Looking at how the internet, as Audrey Watters warns, “multiplies and concentrates” accessibility to our personal data, we can begin to make visible the hidden infrastructures of the web and open our eyes to important questions about the digital ecosystems we travel through and the trackable traces that we leave behind.

Keep reading!

MediaShift, The Real Cost of the Free Internet
Ken Gagne in ComputerWorld, Doxxing defense: Remove your personal info from data brokers
Equality Labs, Anti-doxing Guide For Activists Facing Attacks From The Alt-right
Audrey Watters’ Hack Education Blog, Doxxing to Defend Student Privacy
Federal Trade Commission Report, Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency & Accountability
Upian and Partners, “Do Not Track” personalized web documentary

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