If you’ve ever signed up for an email newsletter or filled out a form online, you may have seen the company’s disclaimer: “Your personal information will never be traded or sold.” But can we trust that reassuring statement now that the truth is out?
An investigative report revealed this week that one company “has built a profile on every American adult.” Not by spying through your windows or picking through your garbage, but based in large part on information you voluntarily submitted through the internet, or which exists in public records:
Forget telephoto lenses and fake mustaches: The most important tools for America’s 35,000 private investigators are database subscription services. For more than a decade, professional snoops have been able to search troves of public and nonpublic records—known addresses, DMV records, photographs of a person’s car—and condense them into comprehensive reports costing as little as $10. Now they can combine that information with the kinds of things marketers know about you, such as which politicians you donate to, what you spend on groceries, and whether it’s weird that you ate in last night, to create a portrait of your life and predict your behavior. (…)
Dubner declined to provide a demo of idiCORE or furnish the company’s report on me. But he says these personal profiles include all known addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses; every piece of property ever bought or sold, plus related mortgages; past and present vehicles owned; criminal citations, from speeding tickets on up; voter registration; hunting permits; and names and phone numbers of neighbors. The reports also include photos of cars taken by private companies using automated license plate readers—billions of snapshots tagged with GPS coordinates and time stamps to help PIs surveil people or bust alibis.
If you’re wondering if this is legal, the answer is, “for now.”
“The Federal Trade Commission oversees the industry,” Bloomberg reports, “but PI companies are largely expected to police themselves.” This expose has received a lot of attention, so expect to hear calls for a crackdown coming soon.
In the meantime, think twice about signing up for “deals” from coupon sites and other online retailers if you want to retain what’s left of your privacy.