Expert Warns Data Brokers Profit from Unregulated Surveillance

With more Americans than ever using online apps and digital services, a stunning amount of information and personal data is being collected on you and potentially exploited by data brokers. Energy and Commerce is investigating how these companies are harvesting your data, selling or sharing it without your knowledge, and failing to keep it secure. 

WHAT EXPERTS ARE SAYING: At an April 19 Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing, Justin Sherman, a Duke University Senior Fellow and Research Lead for the Data Brokerage Project, outlined the risks and dangers of continuing to let data brokers exploit your data without consequence, saying:  

“Data brokerage is a threat to Americans’ civil rights, consumers’ privacy and well-being, and U.S. national security. The entire data brokerage ecosystem—from companies whose entire business model is data brokerage, to the thousands of other apps, advertisers, tech giants, and companies that collect, buy, sell, and share Americans’ personal data—profits from unregulated surveillance of every American, particularly the most vulnerable.” 

INFORMATION COLLECTED BY DATA BROKERS: The best way to change the status quo and restore Americans’ control of their personal information is through a comprehensive data privacy and security framework, which will: 

  • Protect your sensitive information online—like GPS, health, and mobile phone data—from being transferred to data brokers and sold without your knowledge to another private entity or government agency.  
  • Prevent data brokers from aggregating your personal online information and selling that information to an employer or bank, who could then weaponize it to prevent you from getting a job or buying a home. 
  • Restore your control over your personal online information by giving you the power to demand data brokers delete all of the information they’ve collected and stop further collection. 
  • Require greater transparency around data brokers whose sole purpose is to covertly take money off of your information.  

WHY IT MATTERS:  You are the product driving data brokers’ bottom linethese companies are willing to violate your civil liberties to turn a profit. This was made clear at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when data brokers collected Americans’ location data and sold it to federal and local government entities, including government entities in California and Washington, D.C., as well as to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The information was then weaponized to spy on people during lockdowns to see who was attending activities, like church services, in person. 

BIG PICTURE: Next-generation technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality will further deepen our reliance on online services and increase the amount of information collected. Without proper guardrails, that information can easily be sold to data brokers. Robust guardrails and a national privacy and data security standard would help prevent your information from being exploited further by these new technologies. 

DON’T MISS: Last week, a bipartisan group of Energy and Commerce Committee Leaders sent letters to several data broker firms calling on them to be transparent about their data collection practices, selling practices, and the risks posed for Americans. The letters follow the April 19 Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing examining the role of data brokers in the digital economy.  

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From CNBC: 

The letters ask whether the brokers consider any type of data to be off limits for them to buy or sell, what restrictions they put on data they share with third parties and how they verify the accuracy of the data they collect and distribute. Additional questions span from seeking to understand how much money the businesses make from selling data to how many sources they use to get that information. 

Last month, the subcommittee on oversight and investigations held a hearing with expert witnesses to examine “the role of data brokers in the digital economy.” The letters indicate the committee remains focused on this slice of the tech industry as it looks to pass comprehensive privacy legislation. It also shows that Congress is focused on a broader swath of companies than just the massive players like Google and Facebook that attract so much scrutiny. 

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