I recently wrote about a disgusting abuse of ‘big data’: the formation and selling of a “Rape Sufferers” list. No, really. According to Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, this seems to be part of a larger and equally nauseating trend (boldface mine):
A group of companies – known collectively as “data brokers” – are gathering massive amounts of data about our personal lives and selling this information to marketers.
We don’t hear a lot about the private-sector data broker industry, but it is playing a large and growing role in our lives. Let me provide a little perspective: In 2012, the data broker industry generated $156 billion in revenues. That’s more than twice the size of the entire intelligence budget of the United States Government – all generated by the effort to learn about, and sell, the details about our private lives….
These days, data brokers don’t just know our address, our income level, and maybe our political affiliation. They have collected thousands of data points about each one of us.
•They know if you have diabetes or suffer from depression;
•They know if you smoke cigarettes;
•They know your reading habits;
•They know how much you and your family members weigh;
•And they may even know how many whiskey drinks you have consumed in the last 30 days.
Like the pieces of a mosaic, data brokers combine data points like these into startlingly detailed and intimate profiles of American consumers. Under current laws, we have no right to see these pictures of ourselves that these companies have created….
But we also have found some practices that raise some serious consumer protection concerns. In particular, I am disturbed by the evidence showing that that data brokers segment Americans into categories based on their incomes, and they sort economically vulnerable consumers into groups with names like:
•“Rural and Barely Making It”
•“Tough Start: Young Single Parents”
•“Rough Retirement: Small Town and Rural Seniors” and
I want to know how and why data brokers are putting Americans consumers into categories like these. And I want to know which companies are buying these lists to target their marketing to these groups.
When big data scientists use their superpowers for evil, it does put a damper on that whole ‘let Silicon Valley geniuses fix all the problems’ concept.
I realize that, as long as we function under a capitalist system, some crony capitalism will ensue: the beloved idiot nephew hire, the well-connected contractor. Such is the nature of things. But we have moved from the sharp deal to outright economic predation.
This will not end well. Good for Sen. Rockefeller in raising this issue.