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What do data brokers really know about us?

July 6, 2014 at 2:16 PM EST
What types of information are companies gathering about you? How can they use this information, or even trade it? And what rights do consumers have to learn how they're being tracked? Julia Angwin, senior reporter at ProPublica and the author of "Dragnet Nation" spoke with Hari Sreenivasan at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado to shine some light on these complex questions.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Post-Edward Snowdwn has the conversation changed, are more people aware now in the last year of not just NSA and the data that they’re gathering, but all the data of them that exists?

JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah, I think people are more aware. Although it still surprises me how much people are not aware.

It’s not just the NSA. All these companies or even when you go to a shopping mall they might be setting up all these kind of wifi sniffers that kind of ping your phone to see who is walking by, right?

The ubiquity of surveillance is really hard for people to grasp.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the investigations you’ve done there’s tons of research being done about us, and data being generated. What are ways that our data is being used by companies in ways that we don’t know about?

JULIA ANGWIN: I mean it ranges all the way from totally innocuous to really creepy.

And one thing I like to point out is that one thing that seems really innocuous like online ad tracking. You know the ads follow you around from site to site, you know, they’re tailored to your interests. Even that can be disturbing in the wrong context.

So, one story I tell in my book is about a woman who was not out to her colleagues about her sexual orientation but when they saw her looking at her computer screen and every single ad was for gay and lesbian cruises, you know, suddenly she was outted.

So even the most innocuous of data gathering can have strange impacts that are hard to predict.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Do we as consumers have rights to look at the data that a commercial company might have on us and then dispute that, if that’s wrong?

JULIA ANGWIN: No, we don’t have that right. So we’re one of the only Western nations that doesn’t have a law that allows us to see the data, that commercial data gatherers have.

So must countries don’t let you see the data that intelligence agencies have, obviously. But commercial data gatherers in most countries and Canada, and Europe, and the UK. You can go to them and say, show me the information. And if it’s wrong you can correct it, or ask for correction, and there’s sort of a dispute process. But we don’t have that here.

So I tried to find where my data was. I identified two hundred data brokers, and I was only able to see my files at 13 of them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Of those 13, were they all accurate?

JULIA ANGWIN: No, so that’s the other thing. Of the 13 there were probably about 5 or 6 that were very accurate. There were addresses of everywhere I’d ever lived. Even one of them had the number of my dorm room in college, which I had forgotten.

Every phone number and my relatives and all sorts of things. They were very accurate. Then there was another category though of people who basically pegged me because I live in Harlem, in Manhattan as low-income, single mother, with very low education levels. And that’s no true.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And is this data being protected, or is private information about us, being traded all around us.

JULIA ANGWIN: Oh, our private information is being traded all around us. I mean sadly it’s become a commodity. So the data brokers buy and sell from each other all the time.

So if one of them maybe has your voting files, but the other has your hunting license, they might buy and trade that information.

And similarly, the people who track you online on ads that follow you around from site to site, they also trade information about you on actual markets like the New York Stock Exchange.

They are actual instant millisecond-level transactions. So when you arrive at a website, a little section goes out to the auction, oh this person has arrived, who want’s to bid on him… like a bidding in miliseconds.

And then you get the ad for the person who bid the most.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what’s our recourse? I mean, with credit reports, if we get a bad one, technically there’s a way for us to challenge it or find the information. But that’s in a very specific silo. You’re talking about information, everything from our healthcare data to our shopping history.

JULIA ANGWIN: Right. I mean, I don’t know if I have the perfect solution, but I would say that credit reports are a good starting place. Because the two things we are given rights over with our credit reports is we get to see them, and we get to dispute them.

And that has been the baseline for the privacy laws in the other countries that I was mentioning that give people the right to see the data about them and dispute it. And if that data is being used to make a decision of any significance I feel like the very minimum that I want is to see it and dispute it.

And so that’s what the FTC and the Obama Administration have both called for, actually legislation, which would allow that. It’s basically, they call it the privacy bill of rights. But there’s been no action in Congress on that. HS: All right, Julia Angwin thanks so much for your time.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Julia Angwin, thanks so much for your time.

JULIA ANGWIN: Thank you.