If you value your privacy, the past several years have been rough.
Advertisers are trying to make money off you by following your activities on the Web. Credit card issuers are tracking what you buy — not just for anti-fraud purposes. And dozens of consumer reporting companies are collecting and selling so much personal and financial information about you that if you pulled all that data together in one place, you’d essentially create a revealing biography of who you are — and how you choose to live.
Some companies are even attempting to do just that. Try, for example, typing your name into the search engine on Spokeo.com, which collects publicly available information and pulls it together in one easily accessible place. You will likely find a disturbing amount of personal information on there, including your estimated age, real addresses where you’ve lived (complete with photos of the street) and the value and square footage of the homes you live in or own. And that’s just counting the sensitive personal details you don’t have to pay for.
If you — or someone else — are willing to fork over some cash, even more personally revealing information can be found, such as your education and occupation, your political donations, your marital status and ethnicity, the names of your relatives — and even photos that have been added to social media profiles. (Spokeo does at least make it relatively easy to delete your information from the site. Fill out this opt out form and click on a link you receive via email and you should see your details disappear within a day.)
Now, NBC News.com is reporting that many employers — including state and local governments — are joining in the data sharing game and supplying your income records and health insurance status to an Equifax-owned company called “The Work Number.” Equifax then sells those details to anyone claiming to have a permissible purpose to see your financial details, including creditors and even debt collectors.
In the article, Robert Mather, who runs a small employment background company, calls Equifax’s collection of income data “the biggest privacy breach in our time.” Privacy expert Larry Ponemon tells NBC News’s Bob Sullivan: “This is unbelievably scary. I consider payroll information very sensitive and private.”
I don’t know that I’d go that far and call this the biggest privacy breach of our time. It’s true that payroll information is, for many people, deeply private information. Some people aren’t even comfortable sharing how much they make with their closest friends and family members.
But your income and health insurance status aren’t the only sacred details that are getting passed around from company to company.
Think your medical diagnoses, for example, are only shared between your physicians? Not if you disclosed that information to an insurance agent while attempting to buy independent insurance.
I was once diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). That disclosure is now being sold to other insurance companies, according to a consumer report I pulled in December. Apparently, nothing is off limits when it comes to your personal-details-for-sale. And that’s the rub.
Before I started reporting more heavily on consumer data, I didn’t care so much about advertisers tracking my personal information. I found it amusing when diamond ring advertisements began popping up on the right-hand side of my Facebook wall after I got engaged — or when ads for a fertility clinic began appearing on my wall after I married. (Thanks for the heads up, Facebook.)
But as I learned more about just how much of my life is getting monetized and shared, my stomach lurched. It’s not just that slices of consumers’ lives are getting passed around like commodities. The data collection industry is booming and the landscape is changing so rapidly that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with which companies are collecting your data, who they’re selling it to — and why. (It also doesn’t help that many of them are so secretive about it.)
After all, as Consumer Action’s Linda Sherry reminded me recently, anyone can pull together a comprehensive picture of who you are and how you live based on small bits of data that can be paired with other bits.
“People don’t recognize how easy it is to re-identify data off the Web,” says Sherry. A company “may only collect XYZ, but that company could then go to another company or data aggregator and just based on an email can often connect the dots and engineer the data to tell them how old you are, what kinds of things that you purchase on a regular basis, private things that people do not consider in the public domain. It’s quite scary what they can reengineer out there.” Indeed.