The money you make, the music you listen to, the food you eat, even the type of lingerie you buy, personal information you might not even whisper to a best friend, is being bought and sold online. Certain sites online compile date from public sources. Punch in a name and you could get all sorts of information on your family, your home, how much you make, even your hobbies. It might not be correct, but it’s out there.
Data mining is a multi-billion dollar business. Companies are able to profile people by checking public records, by tracking their every stroke a click on the internet. Here’s the kicker, in most cases, we allow them to do it. “You’re selling access to yourself in exchange for something that is theoretically free. You are not transacting money, but you are transacting personal info in exchange for the right to use a service,” says Christopher Penn, the vice president of strategy and innovation for Blue Sky Factory, an online marketing company.
Penn says with certain websites, when you make a purchase, read and article, sign up for a coupon, or fill out a form, data is collected. List owners compile that information, and sell it to list brokers. The brokers then resell it to companies who are looking to target a specific type of customer.
For example, if one owns a company that sells sunglasses, and research shows the shades are most popular with men 30 to 40 years-old who ski in the Northeast, you would pay a broker for the emails of people who fit that demographic, and then reach out to them.
“The direct marketing association says that email has a $43.62 ROI. That means for every dollars you spend, you will earn back $43 in your investment, because it performs so well. That’s why there’s so much spam. You look at your inbox, and think nobody would fall for that. Yes, people do, and that’s why it works,” Penn says.
In most cases, we allow websites to dish our info when we agree to the terms of service. Stephan Dietrich is the president of the marketing firm Neolane North America. His company only sends out emails to people who request them from his clients. “The consumer has shifted the definition of privacy into an area where not even the brand could imagine they would go. It was unbelievable to see what people are throwing on facebook, they consume it,” Dietrich says. In some cases, targeted emails can turn us on to a new product or a deal we might actually want.
Data mining is not an exact science, and the picture a company creates of you might not be accurate at all. There are steps consumer can take to protect themselves. The easiest, is to avoid websites that share your data. It requires looking at the fine print, and understanding it. “The other thing that is useful to do is whenever you are doing any kind of registration form, instead of putting your middle name in, put the name of the site in, so that whenever you get messages from these companies, you can figure out where the data was originally from,” Penn says.
Companies are required to remove your email address from a mailing list within ten days, if requested. So if you think you’re being followed on the web, you probably are. Data miners are digging deep to learn as much as they can about you.
Remember, some of what is out there about you; where you live, how much you paid for your home—that is public record. So there’s not much you can do about that. However, consumers may soon get data mining protection from Congress. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is a co-sponsor of a privacy bill of rights. It would allow people to block their information from being sold or distributed.
TO SEE THE PROPOSED PRIVACY BILL OF RIGHTS: kerry.senate.gov