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How Data Brokers Sell Your Identity

Our personal and professional lives are becoming increasingly intertwined with the online world. Regular internet usage has made us all prone to cyber-security risks. You leave a digital footprint every time you use the internet, which is a trace of all your online activities.  

When you create new accounts or subscribe to different websites, you give them explicit (or implicit, through their family of apps or subsidiary websites) access to your personal and credit card information. In other cases, websites might track basic information without your knowledge, such as your location and search history. 

There is an industry of data brokers specifically dedicated to keeping track of user data, packaging it, and supplying it to tech companies who use it to run targeted ads and enhance on-platform user experience. Given the widespread use of the internet and exponential improvements in technology, data has become a valuable commodity — creating a need for the sale and purchase of user data.  

This article discusses how data brokers sell your personal information and how you can minimize risk. 

What are data brokers?

Data brokers are companies that aggregate user information from various sources on the internet. They collect, collate, package, and sometimes even analyze this data to create a holistic and coherent version of you online. This data is then supplied to tech companies to fuel their third-party advertising-centered business models.  

Companies interested in buying data include but are not limited to: 


  • Tech platforms 
  • Banks 
  • Insurance companies 
  • Political consultancies 
  • Marketing firms 
  • Retailers 
  • Crime-fighting bureaus 
  • Investigation bureaus 
  • Video streaming service providers 
  • Any other businesses involved in sales  

These companies and social media platforms use your data to better understand target demographics and the content with which they interact. While the practice isn’t unethical in and of itself (personalizing user experiences and creating more convenient UIs are usually cited as the primary reasons for it), it does make your data vulnerable to malicious attacks targeted toward big-tech servers. 

How do data brokers get your information?

Most of your online activities are related. Devices like your phone, laptop, tablets, and even fitness watches are linked to each other. Moreover, you might use one email ID for various accounts and subscriptions. This online interconnectedness makes it easier for data brokers to create a cohesive user profile.  

Mobile phone apps are the most common way for data brokerage firms to collect your data. You might have countless apps for various purposes, such as financial transactions, health and fitness, or social media 

A number of these apps usually fall under the umbrella of the same or subsidiary family of apps, all of which work toward collecting and supplying data to big tech platforms. Programs like Google’s AdSense make it easier for developers to monetize their apps in exchange for the user information they collect.  

Data brokers also collect data points like your home address, full name, Social Security number, phone number, and date of birth. They have automated scraping tools to quickly collect relevant information from public profiles.[Text Wrapping Break] 

Lastly, data brokers can gather data from other third parties that track your cookies or even place trackers or cookies on your browsers. Cookies are small data files that track your online activities when visiting different websites. They track your IP address and browsing history, which third parties can exploit. Cookies are also the reason you see personalized ads and products. 

How data brokers sell your identity 

Data brokers collate your private information into one package and sell it to “people search” websites like Spokeo or TruePeopleSearch. You or a tech business can use these websites to search for people and get extensive consumer data. People search sites also contain public records like voter registration information, marriage records, and birth certificates. This data is used for consumer research and large-scale data analysis.  

Next, marketing and sales firms are some of data brokers’ biggest clients. These companies purchase massive data sets from data brokers to research your data profile. They have advanced algorithms to segregate users into various consumer groups and target you specifically. Their predictive algorithms can suggest personalized ads and products to generate higher lead generation and conversation percentages for their clients.  

Are data brokers legal?

We tend to accept the terms and conditions that various apps ask us to accept without thinking twice or reading the fine print. You probably cannot proceed without letting the app track certain data or giving your personal information. To a certain extent, we trade some of our privacy for convenience. This becomes public information, and apps and data brokers collect, track, and use our data however they please while still complying with the law.  

There is no comprehensive privacy law in the U.S. on a federal level. This allows data brokers to collect personal information and condense it into marketing insights. While not all methods of gathering private data are legal, it is difficult to track the activities of data brokers online (especially on the dark web). As technology advances, there are also easier ways to harvest and exploit data.  

Vermont and California have already enacted laws to regulate the data brokerage industry. In 2018, Vermont passed the country’s first data broker legislation. This requires data brokers to register annually with the Secretary of State and provide information about their data collection activities, opt-out policies, purchaser credentialing practices, and data breaches 

California has passed similar laws to make data brokering a more transparent industry. For risk mitigation of data brokerage, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has published reports and provided recommendations to Congress to reduce the engagement of data broker firms. Giving individuals the right to opt-out of the sale of their personal data is a step toward a more rigorous law regarding data privacy 

Can you remove yourself from data broker websites?

Some data brokers let you remove your information from their websites. There are also extensive guides available online that list the method by which you can opt-out of some of the biggest data brokering firms. For example, a guide by Griffin Boyce, the systems administrator at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, provides detailed information on how to opt-out of a long list of data broker companies. 

Acxiom, LLC is one of the largest data brokering firms and has collected data for approximately 68% of people who have an online presence. You can opt-out of their data collection either through their website or by calling them directly. 

Epsilon Data Management is another big player in the data broker industry that operates as a marketing service and marketing analytics company. You can opt-out of their website through various methods such as by email, phone, and mail. Credit rating agencies like Experian and Equifax are also notorious for collecting your data. Similarly, you can opt-out through their websites or by calling them. 

Keep your personal information secure online with McAfee Total Protection

McAfee is a pioneer in providing online and offline data protection to its customers. We offer numerous cybersecurity services for keeping your information private and secure.  

With regard to data brokers, we enable users to do a personal data clean-up. Cleaning up your personal data online may be a difficult task, as it requires you to reach out to multiple data brokers and opt out. Instead, sign up for McAfee’s Personal Data Cleanup feature to do a convenient and thorough personal data clean-up. We will search for traces of your personal data and assist in getting it removed.