Computing Applications

Online Information Brokers & the Challenges of Privacy in a Networked World


At Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, we receive phone calls and emails about online information brokers almost daily. The individuals who take the time to contact us are often those who have the most at stake – they are the victims of stalking and domestic violence, law enforcement officers fearing for the safety of their families, individuals whose livelihood depends on being in the public sphere and those dealing with identity theft. Others are senior citizens who are unfamiliar with the Internet and troubled by what they discover there. They are often bewildered, angry or worried. They ask us how and why websites are publishing their personal information, even selling it to anyone with no questions asked. They want to know how to get that information removed.

Typically, they are dissatisfied by our response.

In October of 2004, my organization first published an article describing what we called "online information brokers." From the beginning, we were struck by how difficult it was to define this type of company. Some of the characteristics of these companies include:

• Pulling and aggregating data from publicly available records, such as court records, property tax assessor files, and social networking websites.
• Providing a web interface that allows a user to request information online.
• Providing information about individuals, instead of aggregate results about a group of people.

Other characteristics are less certain. Some information brokers provide a full criminal background check, others provide a look-up service for phone numbers and addresses. Some information brokers incorporate data from the social web, others do not. While some are geared toward HR professionals, others appeal to consumers trying to connect with old friends. Most sidestep Fair Credit Reporting Act regulation by stating in their terms of service that they cannot be used for any purposes that would fall within the jurisdiction of FCRA.

However, one thing all of these companies have in common: they are under no obligation to remove data when a concerned consumer contacts them.

Some of these companies have voluntarily adopted a process that allows consumers to suppress records from their databases. Fewer have provided a means by which consumers can view their file annually and correct any inaccuracies. Of the more than 100 of these companies we currently list on our Web site, many offer no method of opting-out at all.

For those consumers concerned about privacy, including those whose personal safety is contingent upon keeping information suppressed, this is not enough.

Learn more about online information brokers during our plenary discussion at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy in a Networked Society Conference. Speakers include Les Rosen of Employment Screening Resources, Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum, Jim Adler of Intelius, and myself.

–Beth Givens, Director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

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