Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Privacy Minefield of Online Data

Little time to pontificate today, so let me get right to the article by NPR's Martin Kaste entitled "Online Data Present A Privacy Minefield". In it, one of my "go to" privacy experts - Chris Hoofnagle of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law - is featured.

Kaste writes:

Is privacy still possible? For a lot of people, the answer is no, as companies collect personal data in ever-increasing volumes. Take a site like

It's a sort of "Google" for mailing lists, where more than 1,400 data vendors offer lists of names — hundreds of thousands of names at a time — all sliced and diced and searchable. If you're looking for a list of people with heart disease, you can find it here. Heart disease plus Hispanic plus over 50? Also available.


Even medical data. Federal law prohibits doctors and hospitals from selling health records, but if people voluntarily answer questions on an online health survey, that information is fair game.

The law doesn't restrict what kind of information companies may ask for, and the data industry says more regulations aren't necessary. Industry officials say reputable companies are careful with the information. Companies going through NextMark will "rent" their data through trusted third parties to prevent uncontrolled copying of their lists.


...there are also plenty of people who do more than just rely on their gut instincts. They read the privacy policies and the fine print, and try to control who gets their information.

But Chris Hoofnagle says that may be futile. As the head of the privacy programs at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, he's been tracking the information economy for some time, and he says it's getting harder to make informed decisions.

"As there's been growing awareness of how commercial data brokers operate, they've become more secretive," Hoofnagle says. He says big data brokers are telling the public less about the provenance of their data — where they're getting their information — and he's been tracking this change by saving screenshots of those companies' Web sites.

Data Companies Go Private

As an example, Hoofnagle pulls up screenshots of a big database called Batch Trace, now owned by LexisNexis. As recently as 2002, he says, the site listed the kinds of business that supplied it with data, such as call centers and pizza delivery companies. "As time goes on, this gets thinner and thinner," Hoofnagle says. "By 2006, the provenance is gone."

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

This article brings up that issue I discussed a few weeks back, that being, once people UNDERSTAND what's being done with their data, how its collected and then sold or profited off, we would see a significant outcry...and certainly a demand for increased privacy protections and safeguards.

As I mentioned in that post, a recent survey found 75 percent of Americans said they were opposed to tailored advertising if it meant their behavior surfing the Internet was being tracked. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania who surveyed 1,000 Americans from June 18 to July 2, concluded there was a deep concern that tracking Internet habits for tailoring ads was wrong.

As it is now, the public is largely unaware of what's really going on out there in cyber space...

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