Forget the NSA, It’s the Data Brokers We Should Fear!

It may be that the issue of the government surveilling our every move could be the least of our worries. In our online and highly networked world it appears according to an article in today’s Washington Post, that data brokers may know more about us than some of our family members. These brokers harvest profiles of us not only from public records but also via our credit card and shopper card usage and our online behavior. It is not at all an accident that my grocery store sends me emails with digital coupons for products I purchase or competing brands.

What was disturbing are the inferences that might be made from sites we could visit out of mere curiosity. For example, what inferences might be drawn from visits to sites referencing high cholesterol or diabetes? In my wife’s case, and she is a web newbie, she noticed ads showing up in email after visiting a few sites she was casually curious about, even though she had not subscribed to the emails. Of course, all our online activity is logged whether it is social media, web searches or purchases from online vendors. Supposedly, this information cannot be used to determine insurance rates, to make job offers, or determine credit worthiness. Given other abuses of “big data” I’m not reassured.

Funny and scary at the same time is the fact that these brokers segment us into categories based on all this information, such as “Bible Lifestyle” or “Affluent Baby Boomer”. Some are even less complimentary, such as “Rural Everlasting” which describes older people of “low educational attainment and low net worths.” What drives much of this is the effort to tailor marketing to our interests, whether it is those book recommendations on Amazon, or the ads on Facebook, or even the content we see on our newsfeeds.

Most of what the data brokers know about us is not known to us. How many of you have ever heard of these companies:  Acxiom, CoreLogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf and Recorded Future? The article discusses the lack of transparency in this industry, which does not deal directly with the public, but obtains its information from third parties and from each other and markets it to various vendors.

At very least, it seems utterly reasonable that we have access to these profiles, just as we do to credit records, our own health records, personnel records and more. It would also seem proper, although this could be complicated, to know who else has had access to these records–who knows what this profile says about us? And it seems that there should be established protocols to amend erroneous information that could have a harmful impact upon us. So far, however, the FTC and Congress seem unwilling to afford these opportunities to us or consider any further regulation of this industry.

What all this means is very simple: for most of us, there is very little about our lives that is private–our online activity, many of our purchases via online or physical stores, our medical records, our employment, salary, and housing, our hobbies, beliefs and relationships. Many of us actually accept this or even value the convenience of advertising tailored to our interests, which may be why there is so little stink about the NSA revelations. The act of writing this blog makes a public record of my thoughts and whatever activities, family history, whatever else I post. There is probably no way to completely avoid this although going off the net and cash only would greatly reduce the “data points”.

The Latin phrase, Coram Deo, means “in the presence of God.” It reflects the idea of being consciously aware that one’s life is lived every moment under the watchful care of God and for God’s glory. Perhaps the greatest source of freedom in the midst of our highly surveilled lives comes from living unashamedly before God. Perhaps Coram Deo might be our greatest protection from Coram Data.



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