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Here are the companies mapping your life. Part 2: Data brokers – You've never even heard of them. They know almost everything about you.

Commercial mass surveillance: The actors behind the data collection

It's not just the tech giants that carry out commercial mass surveillance. There are companies working in the shadows, with a single purpose: to collect, buy and sell data about your online activities. And the lists they offer for sale don't make pleasant reading.

If you visit a website for the first time and instead of clicking Accept, click Manage cookies when that infuriating cookie warning pops up, you can go through a list of the (often) hundreds of companies that have cookies or other tracking technologies represented on that site. You’ll probably expect to find companies like Meta and Google here, and you will – together with several other world-leading companies like Amazon, X, Microsoft and so on. But if you scroll a couple more times, names start to appear that don’t sound quite as familiar: Kochava, Veraset, Cuebiq, Spectus, X-Mode… and the list is practically endless. These are what are known as data brokers. Companies that exclusively devote themselves to one single thing: collecting, buying and selling information about your internet behavior.

In other words, data brokers don’t offer any social media or any other type of app in exchange for collecting data about you. They don’t run any website where they sell ads. They trade in data – and that’s all. And how they trade. Acxiom is one of the biggest actors. Even back in 2018, they had data on more than 700 million people and they have boasted that they can offer facts about everything from people’s income, marital status and interests to which grocery stores they shop in and whether their boiler needs replacing.

Data brokers sold information about how children moved in the physical world, which people had visited clinics linked to pregnancy and lists of people with addiction problems.

These actors track you via third-party technologies on almost every website you visit. In a way, data brokers are the ultimate proof of what the internet has become. Every time they turn up in a cookie list, they are a reminder that your online activity is being monitored. Let’s use Acxiom as an example: they say they have 1500 different information points on every single one of the 200 million Americans in their system. And they haven’t obtained that quantity of data simply by tracking people via cookies and other website technologies. They’ve amassed that quantity of data by also buying data from other actors. Data brokers buy and sell data to each other, but they also buy data from other types of tech companies; for example by buying information about your activities in different apps. In 2021, it was revealed that data brokers had purchased location data from Life360, an app in which 33 million parents keep track of where their children are by tracking the child’s phone. You might wonder exactly why data brokers need to know where millions of children are and who they’re selling that data to. But that’s just one example of how repulsive the market is. There are many more examples, particularly if we look at the type of data that data brokers sell.

In 2022, a lawsuit was brought against Kochava for having tracked hundreds of millions of people and sold sensitive data about their location. The data that Kochava sold made it possible, amongst other things, to identify people who visited addiction clinics, religious institutions and safe houses for people who had suffered domestic violence. Vice reported that for a meager 160 dollars it was possible to buy a full week’s list of the people who visited a specific clinic linked to pregnancy – and that it’s even possible to see where the visitors came from and where they went afterwards. This is data that absolutely anyone can buy. Including the state. It’s emerged that authorities have purchased information about people’s immigration status, religious belief and sexual orientation. And as early as 2013, it was possible to purchase records including addresses of police officers, information about people who had been raped and lists of people with drug and alcohol dependencies.

In a classic 60 Minutes interview, Tim Sparapani, Facebook’s first Director of Public Policy, gave viewers an insight into how data brokers act and how the market works (Meta buys a large quantity of data from these data brokers). And we’ll end this article by presenting a complete section of that conversation.

Tim Sparapani: You can buy from any number of data brokers, by malady, the lists of individuals in America who are afflicted with a particular disease or condition.

Steve Kroft: Alcoholism?

Tim Sparapani: Yes, absolutely.

Steve Kroft: Depression?

Tim Sparapani: Certainly.

Steve Kroft: Psychiatric problems?

Tim Sparapani: No question.

Steve Kroft: History of genetic problems?

Tim Sparapani: Yes. Cancer, heart disease, you name it, down to the most rare and most unexpected maladies.

Steve Kroft: Sexual orientation?

Tim Sparapani: Of course.

Steve Kroft: How do they determine that?

Tim Sparapani: Based on a series of data points they bought and sold. What clubs you may be frequenting what bars and restaurants you’re making purchases at, what other products you may be buying online.

Steve Kroft: And all of this can end up in a file somewhere that’s being sold maybe to a prospective employer?

Tim Sparapani: Yeah, not only can it, it is, Steve.

Steve Kroft: With all this information and your name attached to it?

Tim Sparapani: Yes. Exactly.

Ashkan Soltani (privacy and technology specialist): The IP address and the computer ID number are recorded and it’s not difficult for data brokers to match that information with other online identifiers. There are firms that specialize in doing it.

Steve Kroft: So you can combine this data with other data that’s available figure out who someone is?

Ashkan Soltani: That’s right.

Data brokers collect huge amounts of data about people’s behavior online. But they aren’t the worst offenders. Read more about the tech giants here.

What actually happens when data brokers use cookies to track you online? Read more about the technology behind mass surveillance.

What happens to society and to humans in a world where we know everything about everyone? Read more about the potential consequences of mass surveillance here.

How to put a spoke in the wheels of the surveillance machine. Learn how a credible VPN plus a privacy-focused web browser can help you resist data collection.