Every day, without even knowing it, you share intimate personal details about your life with people you’ve never met. The medical symptoms you search online follow you; first to the pharmacy where you pick up a prescription, then to a database of specialists looking to add you as a patient, or to an insurance company creating a risk pool. The car you’ve researched on the web has been broadcast to your local dealerships before you’ve even left the house. When you walk in the door, the salesman already knows which color you want—as well as your salary and driving history—and pulls the shiny new car of your dreams around front.
Americans worship privacy, railing when our favorite websites alter their terms of service to collect just a bit more information about us. Yet from the moment you swipe your rewards card at CVS, to the surveys you fill out, to the websites you shop and social networks you update, there are companies you don’t even know exist—often referred to as “data brokers”—watching, taking notes, and connecting the dots between the virtual you and the real one, using sophisticated technology to create vast and detailed personal profiles of hundreds of millions of American consumers. These databases are available to law enforcement and welfare agencies, to marketers, to banks and insurance companies, to employers looking for background information on their employees, to anyone with a credit card. There is no one watching the data brokers, no one verifying the information they hold and sell is accurate. Worse, there is no way for you to know what their dossiers contain about you, and no easy way to remove yourself from the databases of the hundreds of companies regularly engaged in buying and selling your personal details.
“We have a completely unfettered market in the sale of personal information,” says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU and an expert on data brokers. “It’s like the wild, wild West out there to buy Social Security numbers, names, my preferences, the magazines I subscribe to, the places I go to online, my tax records, the amount of money I make, my medical issues.”