Transparency and online privacy. What you need to know about online protection rules

Research a few websites like Quora, Yahoo Answers, or Answers.com, and you’ll find countless discussions about how to remove your private information from the Internet. The fact is, your home address, telephone number, and even health records, are flagrantly being bought and sold by unscrupulous corporations known as data brokers.

By definition, private information is anything you want shielded from public view. It’s assumed that we all have the right to privacy, however, these basic rights are not assured when it comes to online privacy, where normal rules simply don’t apply.

author of the article, OneRep blog,
Mary Scotorenko

Editor of OneRep Blog

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Transparency and online privacy. What you need to know about online protection rules

Data brokers create and sell dossiers about virtually everyone, including segments of society you’d think should be off-limits – physical disabilities, mental disorders, or serious illnesses like cancer, HIV/AIDS, depression, ADHD – it’s all up for grabs. They also create sell dossiers about your financial habits, late payments, current and former employers, or any liens or judgements – nothing is off limits.

There are roughly 4000 data collecting companies worldwide, but the United States is home to the most notorious industry giants, like Acxiom, Equifax, and PeekYou. Just in 2017, 886 organizations based in the US failed to safeguard their databases. As a result, almost 400 million personal records are now available for anyone to see. This exposed data includes US citizen’s names, home addresses, birthdates, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, political views, medical diagnoses, and student grades.

4000

data broker companies worldwide

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In recent years, data brokers have dramatically ramped up the collection and sharing of personal records for marketing purposes. Most consumers falsely assume that data brokers are infringing on their right to privacy, because this information is acquired without the consumer’s consent. But it’s all perfectly legal.

Here’s a few questions you should be asking yourself:

  1. Are there any laws preventing the unwanted collection of consumer data?
  2. What, if anything, has Congress done to control unwanted data broker activity?
  3. Are data brokers required to delete consumer profiles upon request in a timely manner?

Data brokers and legislation

OneRep has thoroughly researched Internet privacy laws and found that there are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data in United States.

According to the FTC, the law only protects consumers in privacy cases regarding credit, employment, insurance, housing, and other limited instances. But data brokers are not obligated to safeguard the privacy of your home address, phone number, email, and most other personally identifiable information, which is often publicly available.

Privacy laws do apply to credit bureaus and health care providers, but data broker activity generally falls outside their jurisdiction.

A variety of laws regulate the use, sharing, and protection of personal information, however, no federal privacy law controls the collection and sale of personal information by private-sector companies like data brokers and information resellers. In other words, the threat of lawsuits is meaningless to data brokers.

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Data brokers and Congress

On March 24, 2017, Republican senators voted against internet privacy rules adopted during the Obama presidency, which imposed limitations on communications companies ability to track, monitor and sell customer information without their permission.

The New York Times reports that communications giants like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T can continue tracking and sharing their customer’s browsing history and app usage without their consent. Consumer advocate privacy gaps embolden companies to collect and sell sensitive consumer information with impunity.

“Senate Republicans just made it easier for sensitive information, like health records and personal finances to be collected and sold to the highest bidder without permission.”

Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts

It seems some lawmakers care more about appeasing corporations that fund their campaigns than they do the safety and security of the citizens they represent.

Are there any meaningful rules protecting consumer privacy?

Believe it or not, there’s no mechanism in place that specifically regulates data brokers’ activities, but there are rules protecting certain segments of population and their records.

Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)

COPPA imposes a range of requirements on websites, hosts, and online services and states they cannot knowingly collect, distribute or sell personal information about children under the age of 13. The goal was to minimize unwanted data collection about minors and create a safer, more secure online experience for children. However, despite these best efforts, the risk of your child’s information being published and sold always exists, even if people-search websites collect such data unintentionally and are prepared to remove these records upon request.

Transparency and online privacy. What you need to know about online protection rules
WhitePages Privacy Policy

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

The HIPAA Privacy Rule safeguards the privacy of personal health information, be it written or in oral form, and requires additional protections for electronic health records. HIPAA offers patients an array of rights with respect to this information, including the right to examine and obtain a copies of your personal health records, and request any corrections.

Elected official’s right to privacy

Under California Government Code, Section 6254.21, no state or local agency shall post the home address or telephone number of any elected or appointed official on the Internet without first obtaining the written permission of that individual. A person, business, or association that receives the written demand of an elected or appointed official shall remove the official’s home address or telephone number from public display within 48 hours of delivery of the written demand, and shall continue to ensure that this information is not reposted on the same Internet Web site, subsidiary site, or any other Internet Web site maintained by the recipient of the written demand.

Safe at Home

In California, victims of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault can register with the Safe at Home program and submit opt-out requests to any Internet company and prevent them from posting your personal information online.

Data brokers and your right to opt-out

Statistically, very few data brokers offer consumers a meaningful opportunity to have their personal information removed from their databases. Their opt-out process is often incomplete, intentionally difficult, and opt-outs must be manually requested for each and every website publishing your private data. In most cases, data brokers will not allow you to remove your personal information from their databases, while a handful offer anything from partial to complete opt-outs, provided consumers can find each site in question and go through their specific removal process, which is often tedious an incredibly frustrating. Scanning driver’s license, ID, sending multiple opt-out requests via snail-mail, and sometimes even paying removal fees to have your own personal information removed from these websites. Consumers who successfully opt-out of one data broker’s website then face the challenge of repeating the process over and over again for literally hundreds of data broker websites. And after all that hard work, there’s always the risk that any information you have removed can be relisted at any time.


OneRep checks the Web every month to make sure your name hasn’t been re-added to data brokers site. 

The fact is, technology is part of our lives, and there’s no way around that. But if you take a few steps to safeguard your privacy, you’ll go a long way to thwart internet sleuths and reclaim a modicum of privacy in this digital age. To learn more ways to safeguard your privacy, check out these helpful privacy hacks.