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The dark, evil side of our data-driven society: data brokers who sell rape-victim lists

January 14th, 2014 |  Published in Big Data

data brokers


By: Gregory P. Bufithis, Esq.   Founder/CEO

14 January 2014 – We have moved to this wonderful “Web of the world” in which mobile communications, social technologies and sensors are connecting people, the Internet and the physical world into one interconnected network.  Data records are collected on who we are, who we know, where we are, where we have been and where we plan to go.  Mining and analysing this data give us the ability to understand and even predict where humans focus their attention opportunity will resemble a living entity and will require new ways of adapting and responding.  This personal data – digital data created by and about people – is generating a new wave of opportunity for economic and societal value creation.

And there are those with a pure mercantile intent with no sense of human decency who will take any advantage.

Last year I wrote a post that detailed the black world of data brokers. Despite all the growing concerns about government surveillance, the corporate competition to accumulate information about consumers is fierce, pushing down the market price for intimate personal details to fractions of a cent. As I noted in that post, the surveillance of consumers has developed into a multibillion-dollar industry conducted by largely unregulated companies that obtain information by scouring web searches, social networks, purchase histories and public records, among other sources.

And then there are the real scum.

Over the last few days the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal and a few other sources have been reporting on a data broker that has been selling lists of rape-victims, HIV/AIDS patients, victims of domestic violence, etc. The lists have been taken down. Most of the stories are behind paywalls so let me summarize the content:

1. The guilty data broker is Medbase200 which offered these lists (and may still be; I have not thoroughly checked their site).  They even had a “rape sufferers” page but that has been taken down. According to the Wall Street Journal, the company took advantage of a loophole in U.S. HIPPA protections.

2. The hard grunt work/research work was performed by the World Privacy Forum, whose executive director had testified at a U.S. Senate hearing about the data-broker industry. I have one of my D.C. staffers on this and we hope to obtain all the testimony and materials we can from the Senate hearings.

3.  Data brokers have a most sophisticated array of data mining and analytic tools to create databases that track people who have diabetes, depression, and osteoporosis, as well as how often women visit a gynecologist. In part of the Senate testimony, a data privacy expert said individuals don’t have a right to know what types of data the companies collect, how people are placed in categories, or who buys the information.  Medbase200 is a division of Integrated Business Services which, among other things, runs web conferencing services for law firms.

4.  Medbase200 sells lists of people suffering, from among things, ailments such as diabetes and arthritis to pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies.

5. According to Beyond Data which has also covered this story, the companies buy this information with glee, spending just $79 to get information on 1,000 folks who had been through a specific hardship.

There are reams and reams being written these days about data brokers’ targeted marketing, how do data brokers get this information, individuals right to know/not right to know, etc. I have data brokers as one of my big writing projects this year. I hope to get the Senate data broker information by April (hearings continue) when they hope to publish.

Meanwhile, welcome to the dark side of the data-driven society.

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"The mind that lies fallow but a single day sprouts up follies that are only to be killed by a constant and assiduous culture."
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