Cambridge Analytica was just the tip of the iceberg. Data brokers are bigger, wealthier and sneakier than ever — and making billions by invading your privacy.
“They did not foresee what in fact has happened … the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant.”
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958)
For many, the name “Cambridge Analytica” was a first introduction into the shadowy world of data mining. While Cambridge Analytica made their name based on a sophisticated form of data slice-and-dice to assist in influencing and altering the 2016 Presidential election, there are a surprising number of organizations that have been doing this same type of information scouring for years. The problem with this form of data gathering is that consumers are unaware that their personal information is being gathered, stored, and sold, and there aren’t any laws established to protect them.
Data brokers are not held to any legal standards; and this leaves the doors wide open for them to collect your personal information, trade it and sell it in any way they wish.
Under the more eloquent name of “business intelligence,” the organizations that are involved in data mining have refined their approaches to formulating smooth methods of gleaning anything and everything that they can about you as a consumer, including some of the most intimate of information. These companies use every innocent point of contact involved in an individual’s life to gather golden nuggets of information from internet surfing, websites, store purchases, publicly available data, loyalty programs, online purchases, and even contributions made to your favorite charities. Access to these consumer profiles is big business, and companies will dig into your deepest darkest secrets to find out everything that they can about people.
In other words, there is a precise dollar value associated with getting inside people’s heads to influence their decisions. This approach is called “psychographic profiling” and “is a qualitative methodology used to describe consumers on psychological attributes. Psychographics have been applied to the study of personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles.”
Attitudes about data sharing differ based on generation. Older people still retain a level of suspicion and are less likely to trust sharing their data, with even less trust for the companies that are collecting it. Younger individuals have never known an existence without the internet and due to social media exchange, feel more open to having their data “out there.” The question remains: is there a tipping point for the quantity of information that is being shared to move towards objection? When the data that is contained can keep you from a new job, getting a loan, or possibly buying a home, the control-factor moves from being informational to dangerous.
The Big Three
People search sites that gather basic information including name, address, birthdays, affiliations, education, etc., with the data available for a small fee. Some of these companies include PeekYou, Spokeo, Pipl, and PeopleSmart. These are often the first level of access for anyone interested in using the information for malicious intent (also known as “doxing”).
Marketing based data brokers such as Datalogix (a division of Oracle), and other subdivisions of the credit reporting bureaus of Equifax and Experian, are deeply entrenched in data mining. These companies create detailed dossiers on people that include information useful for tailored marketing strategies. Other companies can purchase data that can include such details as education, ethnicity, age, interests, income, etc. and craft custom marketing blasts.
Risk mitigation data brokers such as ID Analytics can be used to assist in fraud detection and ID verification. They validate all of the pertinent information, including social security number, and is often used by credit card companies, law enforcement, and even the government.
At this point, you might be assuming that much of this looks and sounds harmless and even a bit mundane, but read on.
Too Close For Comfort
Most of the names of the data brokers that are in control of your information are probably not known to the average individual. These are well-established brokerage houses that buy and sell you like a commodity on the stock market. Some of the “players” in the data brokering game include Epsilon, Acxiom, Live Ramp, IPG, DSL Direct and even Oracle.
To give you an idea of just how much “mundane” personal info is worth, in 2018 IPG (Interpublic Group) purchased data broker Acxiom for $2.3 billion.
If you’ve ever wondered how you get those ads on Facebook, email spam, or those sideline ads that match what you were recently searching for, these companies are probably behind them.
Data Management Platforms (DMP’s) are the central core of each ever tech company using ads (which is most of them). An example of DMP is Acxiom’s Live Ramp Connect that manipulates information, slices/dices, and hones it down so that it can spit out a final data list to their affiliates and partners for whatever purposes are needed. Cambridge Analytica accomplished this through a narrowing of the lens to find those that might be most vulnerable for political propaganda. The thing is, Cambridge Analytica was a small fish in a massive pond. Each of the data mining companies mentioned above is using this ability for similar influence, they just didn’t work on a Presidential Election… yet…and therefore are continuing to fly under the radar. While you might think some of the players are indeed competitors, they also work together to connecting more dots for maximum profit.
The rule of thumb to remember in the universe of data mining is that there are no rules and there are no limits. Any failure, weakness or problem can be bought from these companies for a price.
Data Mining Companies on the Defense
Although much smaller than many of the bigger data mining players, Cambridge Analytica crossed the line and took full advantage of their software abilities for nefarious purposes in a high-risk political landscape. The exposure of their actions exposed the dark direction that they took to try to influence political choices through propaganda and psychographic profiling. These data mining companies, who have historically remained behind the scenes, are now under a microscope. Cambridge Analytica made use of unscrupulously obtained Facebook profile information, supplying it to Russian and Macedonian purveyors of fake news so that they could craft memes and articles for political influence. Since there aren’t any laws dictating that this type of mining can’t be done, it goes without saying that the doors are open for others to play the same game.
Cybercriminals are intensely interested in these data mining companies and have devoted time and effort to constant and often successful attacks. Theft of your personal information takes this to a whole new level as the criminals can buy and sell on the dark web, and this intensifies the ability for identity theft.
A Vice Motherboard article offers just a hint of some of the thefts that have occurred upon the data brokers who had made it a point to put all of your personal identity information in one easy to access database for someone with the right hacking skills.
“Companies scooping up tons of data on individuals are vulnerable to security breaches, so the information they’re collecting has ended up in the wrong hands. In addition to the Equifax breach, which affected more than 145 million people, Acxiom was hacked in 2003, and over 1.6 billion records (including names, addresses, and email addresses) were stolen, and some were sold to spammers. Epsilon was hacked in 2011, exposing names and email addresses of millions of people on email marketing lists who were then subject to spam as well as spear phishing attempts. LexisNexis’ parent company RELX has been breached multiple times, exposing social security numbers, mailing addresses, and driver’s license data. In 2015, 15 million records belonging to T-Mobile but stored on Experian’s servers were accessed.”
Data mining has gone beyond just collecting information to create a cause-and-effect change for product purchases and has now entered the corrupt arena of brainwashing propaganda. Our reliance on the internet for news and on algorithms to show us what we should consume has produced an ecosystem where outside organizations can influence our thoughts and decisions.
As a result, we are losing the ability to tell truth from fiction. The time has come to create technologies and processes that can differentiate inauthenticity across the news we consume and even the ads we see while protecting the very personal nature of our online footprint.
This Is Why We Fight,
We are fighting in the war against misinformation to create a more empowered critical thinking society.
To find out more about our team and the Blackbird.AI Mission, visit us at www.blackbird.ai