Data Brokers Can Be Frighteningly Accurate and Laughably Wrong

What's to come?
March 3 2014 7:29 AM

What Do Data Brokers Know About Me?

I tried to find out. Some of their information is frighteningly accurate—and some of it laughably wrong.

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Some of them were well-known names, like the credit-reporting agency Experian. But most were tiny outfits in the voyeuristic “lookup” business—websites that let people look up information about other people for a small fee or sometimes for free in return for selling advertising.

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There are very few barriers to entry in the lookup business. Consider the story of BeenVerified.com. In 2007, Josh Levy and Ross Cohen decided to offer cheap online background checks. The two set up shop with a $200,000 investment. By 2011, the company said it had revenues of $11 million and just 16 employees. Not bad work if you can get it.

The U.S. data business is largely unregulated, which is not the case in most Western European countries. Those countries require all data collectors to provide individuals with access to their data; the ability to correct errors in the data; and, in some cases, the right to delete the data.

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After reading the fine print on 212 websites, I learned that only 33 of them offered me a chance to see the data they held about me. But upon closer examination, not all of them were real offers. Some required me to set up accounts in order to see my data.

I contacted 23 data brokers and received my data from 13 of them. Some asked me to send my requests by postal mail, along with a copy of my driver’s license. Others allowed email requests. Most of the responses I got were from the biggest players in the industry.

Epsilon, one of the largest direct marketers, with more than $3 billion in annual sales, sent me a sparse two-page report identifying my name, address, age, and political affiliation. It listed recent purchase categories in extremely broad categories—apparel, media, business, health, home office, and sports. The most specific information was a description of my household interests: cycling, running, and sports. For someone who hasn’t gotten on her bike in five years, that is more aspiration than reality.

I was shocked that Acxiom, the data-gathering giant with annual sales of around $1.1 billion, asked me to send a $5 check as a processing fee to obtain my data. But I sent it in, gritting my teeth. One month later, Acxiom sent me a nine-page report with my Social Security number, birth date, voter registration, and addresses dating back to childhood. None of the information that Acxiom sells about my interests was provided. Acxiom’s reluctance to share was particularly galling, since it brags in its annual report that it has more than “3,000 propensities for nearly every U.S. consumer.” One of its main products is the PersonicX database, which lumps people into 70 “clusters” within 21“life stage groups.”

Thanks to the journalist Dan Tynan, who does great work covering privacy issues, I found a page on Acxiom’s website that lets you enter your age, marital status, income, and age of children to determine your PersonicX cluster. When I entered my real information (which was a bit scary), Acxiom reported back that I was in a cluster called “Fortunes and Families”—“one of the most educated and wealthy of all the groups.” People in this cluster are more likely to have attended graduate school (yep) and be Asian (yep, that’s my husband). Also true: “Their busy lives make Internet shopping a necessity rather than a preference.” However, the stock photo on the “Fortunes and Families” cluster was a little absurd—a picture of a man and a woman standing in front of a private jet. We’re not private-jet wealthy. We’re not even business-class wealthy. We are strictly coach class.

Other Acxiom clusters have names like “Truckin’ and Stylin’,” “Married Sophisticate,” “Urban Scrambler,” “Rural Rover,” and “Lavish Lifestyle.” However, it’s not clear which cluster Acxiom has actually assigned me to, since its demonstration website doesn’t ask for names. Acxiom later introduced an online service that would let people see their data if they entered their name, address, birth date, email address, and last four digits of their Social Security number. I was reluctant to hand over so much sensitive information, but, once again, I gritted my teeth and submitted my information. The resulting demographic data were remarkably poor: Acxiom said I was a single Asian parent, with a 17-year-old child, who drives a 2009 Toyota Corolla—all of which is incorrect. However, the shopping data was impressive: It correctly flagged that I prefer online shopping over off-line shopping and identified categories in which I had spent money, such as linens, housewares, and “women’s apparel—underwear and hosiery.”

Datalogix, which claims to have data on “almost every U.S. household and more than $1 trillion in consumer transactions,” took three months to respond to my request. But one day a FedEx envelope arrived containing two sheets of paper from Datalogix listing my “interest segments.” It was a mishmash. Yes, I am a “mom” and a “foodie” and an “online buyer” of “women’s fashion & apparel,” but calling me a “fashionista” and “young and hip” is likely a bridge too far.

Similarly, my family does buy energy-efficient light bulbs and organic milk, but I was surprised that this qualified us as “green consumers” and “health food” purchasers. And some data were outright wrong: We have no pet and no television, thus we have never purchased any “pet supplies” nor have we watched “Spanish language television.”

Other Datalogix categories were deliberately obscure. “Political views” and “political geography” were among my interest categories, but the report did not disclose what views they believe I hold. Similarly, my household income and home value were listed as categories but not disclosed.

Infogroup merely sent me an email containing my name and address—the same information that I had provided in order to access my dossier. Gee, thanks.

I got better results from LexisNexis, another giant in the field. Four days after I submitted my request, LexisNexis mailed me a free 10-page “Accurint Person Report,” containing every address I’ve lived at since 1989.

Like the TLO report, it was disturbingly accurate. It had captured the one month I spent at my parents’ house while looking for an apartment in San Francisco in 1996. It grabbed the two months that I spent living in my boss’s attic while interning at the Washington Post in 1992. Under “Possible Associates,” it listed my husband and his mother and dates that she had visited him in his New York apartment.

Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw was the most generous, kindly sending me two free reports: a 34-page “summary” that was mostly correct except for listing my brother as the head of my household and an eight-page “comprehensive” report that listed my license plate, mortgage information, and employer. The Westlaw comprehensive report was the only report I saw that listed the sources from which it obtained my historical addresses—all were from credit-reporting agencies.

Some companies’ offers of access seemed to be little more than window dressing. Intelius, one of the largest of the online people-search sites, which had $150 million in sales in 2010 (the last year that this information was publicly available), offered a website called TrueRep.com that allows users to see their data. However, the service was not advertised on any of the Intelius sites that I found. And when I visited TrueRep to find my data, it didn’t work. After I contacted the company, it fixed the “bug,” and I was able to access my data—first I had to answer a set of personal questions, such as when my house was built and what model car I drive. Strangely, once I passed those questions, the report didn’t provide any details about my house and car. Obviously, Intelius must have more information that it is not disclosing, though it did report the correct names of my parents, husband, and brother. But it had two incorrect addresses for me—one in the Bronx and one at the United Nations.

Still, on average, the data brokers were largely correct about me. They correctly located most of my addresses and relations. And in large part they correctly identified me as a harried working mom, prone to choose convenience over thrift.

Excerpted from Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance by Julia Angwin, published Feb. 25, 2014, by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Julia Angwin. All rights reserved.

Julia Angwin is the author of Dragnet Nation and an investigative journalist for ProPublica. From 2000-2013 she was a Wall Street Journal staff reporter. Follow her on Twitter.

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