The Identity Economy

Human beings are private. Some are more open than others, but every person has a line. We cover our bodies, we keep secrets, we hide behind sunglasses and white lies. Some of us pride ourselves on our privacy. My friend once told me he was a private person, only keeping a few friends informed about his on-goings.

He spoke that sentence while he logged into Facebook. The irony is palpable.

There is a bigger irony out there. Our line is being crossed every single day. Secrets we would hesitate to share with our priests are being bought and sold online by office drones in dilapidated offices, skyscrapers, and everything in between.

They’re data brokers, and they know a lot more than you think.

There are more than four thousand data brokers operating worldwide generating more than 200 billion dollars of revenue each year.

We all have an idea this is happening. We see targeted ads from our Amazon searches, banners featuring something we googled yesterday etc. Somehow we have become ok with it because it feels relatively harmless. To see all of the parties tracking you right now, I would go to Lightbeam on the Firefox browser. Using Lightbeam I was able to see 30+ independent data brokers collecting informaiton on me over the course of only 10 minutes of general browsing. 

So what, they know I want to buy a vacuum cleaner?

A lot of this data is fairly innocuous. Well over a thousand leading brands sell information from your loyalty rewards programs. These data points cover your towel preferences, when you like to shop, what you typically purchase, things like that.

That’s not bad! That’s the mantra of the data brokers themselves. By collecting “marketing data” they can give you a more tailored internet experience. I mean, if you like bathing suits and purses and you have to see ads anyway,  why not make it ads about bathing suits and purses.

I agree. But remember that line we talked about? That part of our lives we keep hidden away?

They’re selling that.

Anyone can buy a list of people identified by the following characteristics –

Gay or lesbian, bipolar, alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, desperate to get out of debt, Muslim, specific health issues, sex-toy purchases, and more.

I invite you to search anything you want on https://lists.nextmark.com/.

With a cursory search, you can buy a list of people curated by almost any category your heart desires.

That’s not great. But you may defend your reality by saying it’s all anonymized. They aren’t selling my name attached to a sex toy list. Oh, they are.

Attached to these lists are IP addresses and computer identification codes which other firms specialize in connecting to you personally utilizing other data points.

To sum that up, various companies are holding somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 data points for you ranging from the innocuous to the downright scary sitting in servers that you have no control over, and they are making money hand over fist selling it to the highest bidder without one iota of oversight or regulation.

This will definitely need some investigation.