The Proliferation of Online Information Brokers and Reports of Abuses of Consumer Privacy
Beth Givens, Director
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
April 14, 2010
Submitted to the Federal Trade Commission
Privacy Roundtables - Comment, Project No. P095416
The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) appreciates the opportunity to submit the following comments on the online information broker industry to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as part of the agency’s deliberations for the Privacy Roundtables series. The PRC is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in San Diego, California, and established in 1992.
We base our comments about the online information broker industry on the many complaints we have received from individuals who have contacted us via our web-based contact form, email, and phone. The PRC receives such complaints on a near-daily basis.
To supplement these comments we refer you to a resource on our website, enabling individuals to locate the myriad of such companies and indicating those with a known opt-out mechanism. You can find our compendium at this URL: http://www.privacyrights.org/ar/infobrokers.htm. We have also included a list of information brokers at the end of this document. (APPENDIX 1)
The online information broker industry has come to the forefront of consumer privacy issues in recent years. Information brokers are companies that compile information on individuals via public, semi-public and private records and offer this information via online “lookup” services, often with no questions asked. Some charge a fee while others provide their services at no charge. Consumers who are attempting to limit the availability of their personal information, due to concerns about privacy, safety or identity theft, have lodged numerous complaints against this industry with the PRC over the years.
Specifically, we have received complaints from consumers about frustrations with inaccurate data, the difficulty in opting out of databases or being charged fees to opt out, concerns over potential employers utilizing online information brokers without the guarantees provided by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and a general dearth of regulation of this growing industry.
We urge the Federal Trade Commission to investigate unfair and deceptive business practices by companies within this industry. Below, we offer examples of complaints we have heard from concerned consumers.
The major complaint we receive is that such companies even exist. Information brokers typically have no direct relationship with their data subjects. Yet, they compile and sell such personal information without individuals’ consent. The PRC website explains that information brokers obtain most of the information that they sell or otherwise provide from public records and other publicly- available sources. When we explain to individuals who have contacted us with their complaints that the information broker industry is, for the most part, not regulated, their dismay only increases.
For victims of stalking and domestic violence, keeping personal information private can be a matter of life and death. We were recently contacted by an attorney whose client is at risk of physical harm if her residential location is disclosed. She was troubled to learn that a profile about her, including her residential address, is posted on the website of Integrascan. http://www.integrascan.com
The attorney attempted to contact the company, but experienced considerable difficulty in locating the CEO and other top administrators. When she did reach the CEO, this person refused to remove the posting, despite the attorney presenting testimony from her client’s doctors and therapist about the likelihood of harm if her location is exposed. The victim had been successful in removing her identifying information, including residential address, from virtually every other source. With the help of her attorney, all property is now held in trust and former property records have been redacted. No voting records exist any longer. And media records have been removed from online sources. Despite the arguments of her attorney, the Integrascan executive did not remove her client’s profile.
Consumers have contacted the PRC to complain about those information brokers that charge a fee to opt out:
- US Search allows consumers to suppress their information for one year at a time by paying a fee of $10 via a credit card transaction online. http://www.ussearch.com/consumer/commerce/about/privacy.jsp (accessed April 14, 2010)
Needless to say, for consumers attempting to control the flow of their personal information around the Internet, following the instructions in order to opt out of every online data base is complicated, time consuming and expensive.
The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has also seen an increase in consumer complaints about websites that aggregate and disclose personal information from numerous public sources, primarily social media. Based on a spate of recent complaints, we focus on one such company, Spokeo, found at http://www.spokeo.com.
Spokeo is a lookup services that accesses social networks, phone books, marketing surveys, business databases, e-commerce stores, and other public databases. Searches can be conducted on an individual’s name, phone number or email address. A user may also enter his or her email address and password and run concurrent searches on every person in his or her contact list. Spokeo advertises this as a way to “Quickly uncover hidden photos, videos, and secrets. Scan your email contacts and be shocked by what you find.” http://www.spokeo.com/friends (accessed April 14, 2010)
The PRC has received complaints that Spokeo has posted information from social media sites even though individuals have taken steps to implement constrictive privacy settings. Consumers have also complained that it is difficult to opt out of Spokeo, a multi-step process that implies information can be suppressed with one click but in fact necessitates mailing in documentation, including a photocopy of the individual’s driver’s license, and waiting several weeks. http://www.spokeo.com/blog/spokeo-privacy/my-content-privacy/ and http://www.spokeo.com/blog/?page_id=110 (accessed April 14, 2010)
In conclusion, this report is but a small sampling of the complaints we have received from individuals about information brokers. We encourage the FTC to examine its Sentinel database for complaints it has received from individuals regarding information brokers, if it has not already done so. Given the many complaints our organization has received in recent years, we are convinced this is a major area of consumer protection awaiting the FTC’s investigation and oversight, in particular, regarding those companies that appear to be engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices.
APPENDIX 1: For illustration purposes, following are the names of several information brokers (some are inter-related). This list is not comprehensive. Two types of information brokers are included: (1) those that provide directory information only, such as name, address, phone number, and email address; and (2) those that compile more robust profiles from public records and other publicly-available sources.
Background Record Finder
Cellular Phone Records
ChoicePoint (now part of LexisNexis)
Family Tree Maker
Find a Friend
My People Reports
Online Background Checks
|People Find USA
People of America
People Record Finder
Public Record Finder
Public Record Service
[The] Public Records
Public Records Now
Social Security Search USA
USA People Search
Vital Search Worldwide
Voter Lists Online
Your Own Private Eye
[see also credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, TransUnion]