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Data Abuse

We're making <b>BILLIONS</b> every year off <i>your</i> data!
We're making BILLIONS every year off your data!

At first you might not believe me when I say that your information is valuable. Where you eat, how much you spend for Christmas, your struggle with weight… all these things give companies an advantage in convincing you to give money to them and based on history, companies are only too happy to use every advantage against you as long as they make money (extended warranties, Product Rebates, Gift Cards, etc.)

So the new cash cow is private information about people that will help companies sell things to you more effectively.

Step 1: Get as much of your data as they can.

While doing business with someone, they ask for information they don't actually need for their business. Sometimes they do it to support planned future capabilities and sometimes they do it for targeted marketing. And in some cases, they just sell it to someone else for some extra cash.

It happens all the time, but one of the more egregious examples I've personally seen was a small video-rental store who asked for your social security number as part of the sign up!

The best way to do this of course is to create a site or service where you will choose to volunteer personal data about yourself for no particular reason. For example: Facebook. Facebook openly uses the information in your profile to target ads to you sometimes in quite insulting ways:

With the knowledge that I was engaged to be married, the site splashed an ad across the left side of the screen playing into a presumed vulnerability. Do you want to be a fat bride? You'd better go to such-and-such Web site to learn how to lose weight before the big day.

Which brings us to step number 2…

Step 2: Use all the data to market to your interests (and also your weaknesses and insecurities).

The Risks

Even if you don't see a problem with the companies you do business with capturing and storing information you didn't give them permission to have, what about when they sell it or lose it. That's the basis of the ID theft problem which exists because of one kind of data broker, but those are carefully regulated now and only capture one kind of data.

What about some of the other possibilities that arise when there are "citizen files" out there for anyone to have and use?


Companies complain and moan about how they need all this data to "tailor your experience". What that means is, "exploit you where you're weak" and make money from you.

A gift from a friend...
A gift from a friend...

A company that buys the customer list from Jenny Craig might guess that you have weight control problems and send you advertisements for diet plans and pills, or worse: catalogs for gourmet chocolates. If your purchase records show items like newborn diapers and formula, perhaps now is the time to hit you up for contributions for college funds and insurance.

Even worse, what if I decide I don't like you for some reason (damn you, you took the last donut in the breakroom!), but I know that you're a recovering alcoholic (saw it in your profile). Your Facebook page says your wife and kids are going to be out of town for the weekend so what if I drop a "gift from a friend" on your doorstep for you to find in the morning? Specifically a wine sampler or kegger.

I could literally destroy your life just by pushing you in the right place at the right time.

Exclusion and Prejudice

History shows data can be turned against us quickly.
History shows data can be turned against us quickly.

Let's say you have AIDS and many people don't understand the disease. If your doctor or hospital shared the information with marketers (or if your purchasing records show AIDS-related medication), it could spread. Maybe your gym would cancel your membership fearing the backlash if others found out. Maybe your kids would get kicked out of school by an administration that doesn't understand the risks. Maybe neighbors would start vandalizing your house thinking you've got the plague.

Think that's extreme? Didn't you ever hear of Ryan White? Or take a quick stroll through US history to find that census data was used during World War II to identify Americans of Japanese descent for internment. They didn't even have a communicable disease, they were just foreign!


How easy is it to stalk you if your name and address are always available from the nearest data broker?

If I have access to your credit card receipts or your "shopper card" records, it's easy for me to see whether you have stuff worth robbing.

If I know your annual income is off the charts, perhaps I can arrange to have your son kidnapped (which becomes even easier because I know your daycare provider's name is listed on your credit card statement).

Fixing the problem

A citizen should be able to control their own data. This does NOT mean that you should be able to just correct data, but that (minus being involved in crimes) you should exist in no databases against your will. All services should be usable without any personally identifiable information, or in the cases that such information is required (such as delivery of an item or billing), the data should be erased from all records, databases, backups etc. upon completion of the transaction.

Companies should only ask for information they need and delete as much information as they can after the transaction is complete

For example: public libraries and video rental stores keep records of what is checked out, but they have no business keeping that data once the item has been checked back in. This serves no legitimate purpose and should be disallowed. They can keep information on what was checked out and when for organization and statistics, but the personal information should be removed.

Another example: If I make a credit card purchase online, I should not have to worry that they are keeping my card on file against my will. It should be used for the transaction only and then purged.

And another: I should not have to create an account with any web store just to make a purchase! Forced registrations are identity abuse and have no legitimacy in a consumer transaction. If I wanted to provide my data for easier checkout on return business, I would do so!

So, put simply, there needs to be stiff regulation of the storage and use of data.

They Can't Lose Data They Don't Have

If you don't keep my data on file, you can't lose it

There's a very simple philosophy I follow when it comes to data security. It doesn't matter how bad the security is or how smart the hackers are, if a company doesn't have my data, they can't lose it.

So remember every time there's a data breach and millions of customers' credit cards are stolen… It's not smart hackers, it's the data abusers who stored your information in the first place.

The Basics

The Geek Privacy Principle: an argument for why you should choose to keep information to yourself most of the time.
Ever heard someone say they have Nothing to Hide? Learn why that's such a bad thing and what you can say in response when you hear it.

Current Dangers to Privacy

Data Abuse - Companies buy and sell all kinds of data about you from the foods you like to the color of your hair to the names and ages of your kids.
RFID - Radio Frequency IDentification - Companies are beginning to use tiny radio transmitters on products and in clothing to track your movements and add it to their profiles on you for marketing purposes.

Protecting Your Privacy

Build a Privacy Alias/Persona to give to people or organizations you don't trust.
Data Defense - Learn how to keep your information to yourself.

1 Comment to “Data Abuse”

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Barbara Carmichael says:

my ins said lexisnexia has something bad about me

How to Steal Identities - Why It's So Easy
Credit Freeze
Data Defense
Credit Monitoring
Id Theft Insurance
The Identity Theft Victim's Mini-Guide to Recovery
The Geek Privacy Principle
Nothing to Hide
Data Abuse
RFID - Radio Frequency IDentification
Privacy Alias/Persona
Data Defense
Online Addiction
The Consequences of Posting Online
Photo Safety
Tricks and Scams
Account Hijacking
Trusting Companies
Bad Passwords
Password Tips and Tricks
Password Protection
Password Mugging
Computer Security
E-mail Safety
Kids and Computers
Shopping Online
All About Warranties

The Geek Privacy Principle

The most basic principle of privacy is to be able to choose who knows what about you and when. The Geek Principle describes why you should choose by default not to share information.

[Click for full description]

Nothing to Hide

Do you say "I have nothing to hide" or do people you know say it to YOU? Read this tutorial about why no one should ever say they have nothing to hide again.

[Click for full description]

Data Abuse

Learn how your data is taken from you and used against you by large companies for their own benefit.

[Click for full description]

RFID - Radio Frequency IDentification

One of the most risky technology when it comes to your privacy is Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID). These radio chips broadcast your identity sometimes hundreds of feet and can be found in passports, farecards, credit cards, and even some clothing.

[Click for full description]

Privacy Alias/Persona

Sometimes you are required to give away information to be able to get service, but you know the company has no real need of your data other than to share and sell it. In these cases, having a personalized alias comes in handy.

This guide will explain in more detail why you should have one and how to create it.

[Click for full description]

Data Defense

One of the most important, but least understood, threats against us today is the creeping data-abuse by companies seeking to compile complete profiles on every American in order to enable "targeted marketing".

Until laws are in place to control their use of your data, learn the tips and tricks to make it harder for them while improving your identity-theft defense at the same time.

[Click for full description]