Data Mining: Big Brother Is Watching

It’s no secret that marketers are tracking our every online move with powerful analytic tools, but how much do they really know about us, where does the information come from, and when does data mining cross the line?

Data Brokerage firms collect, store, analyze, and sell our personal information to other brokerage firms, advertisers, businesses, and even the Government, usually without our knowledge or permission (Messick & Gavrilovic, 2014).

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Marketers have been gathering our information for years by tracking our credit card purchases, magazine subscriptions, and surveys we’ve filled out.  Today, however, with the amount of digital data available, the number of companies engaging in “data mining” has increased dramatically (United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, 2013, p. 1). We use computers and mobile devices to make purchases and conduct research on a variety of topics including finance, health, vacations, etc. We engage with others over email and on social media sites. All of these activities are creating vast digital footprints of our daily routines (United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, 2013, p. 2). In other words, our click paths are tracked to determine what our interests are and what types of purchases we might make (Messick & Gavrilovic, 2014).

What is becoming increasingly unsettling is the amount of sensitive personal details these companies hold on each of us. In an interview that aired on the popular television news show 60 minutes, Tim Sparapini, a former privacy lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, remarked that “People would be stunned to learn what’s being compiled about them and sold, and might end up in their profiles; religion, ethnicity, political affiliations, user names, income, and family medical history, and that’s just for openers” (Messick & Gavrilovic, 2014). Additional information being collected includes diseases, such as alcoholism, depression, psychiatric problems, genetic history, and sexual orientation (Messick & Gavrilovic, 2014).

The 60 Minutes episode also identified several data brokers selling sensitive information online “We were able to go online and find all sorts of companies peddling sensitive personalized information. A Connecticut data broker called “Statlistics” advertises lists of gay and lesbian adults and “Response Solutions” — people suffering from bipolar disorder. “Paramount Lists” operates out of this building in Erie, Pa., and offers lists of people with alcohol, sexual and gambling addictions and people desperate to get out of debt. A Chicago company, “Exact Data,” is brokering the names of people who had a sexually transmitted disease, as well as lists of people who have purchased adult material and sex toys” (Messick & Gavrilovic, 2014)

Quite literally, our every move is being monitored. Consumer location information is now being tracked through cell phones. Small sensors that ping Wi-Fi enabled phones are installed in business locations to track shoppers as they move about the store and the surrounding areas to gather information about their behavior and build shopper profiles (Dwoskin, 2014, n.p.). What’s even more alarming is that some of the Apps we download actually collect information from our cell phones to track our location, and then sell that information to other companies. In the 60 minute episode, Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill notes that “the iPhone app for Path Social, which was designed to help young people share photos and memories with friends, was caught sneaking into users’ digital address books and filching their contact information…like Facebook usernames, Twitter usernames, birth dates. So it can be fairly detailed in personal information that is contained within a contact list or address book.” (Messick & Gavrilovic, 2014).

Data Brokers operate in the shadows to collect our personal information without our knowledge. In addition to privacy concerns, The United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (2013) has identified other harmful ways data can be used:

  • Targeting consumers so narrowly that they are not provided with equal access to information, particularly online.
  • Websites displaying different pricing based on individual profiles.
  • Predatory businesses targeting vulnerable consumers.
  • The possibility of data breaches (p. 6-8).

The amount of information available about our every move is disturbing, and with so much available digitally today, data mining has crossed the line into stalking. The Federal Trade Commission recognizes this and is demanding more transparency and oversight of Data Brokers and a mechanism for consumers to opt out if they don’t want their data collected. The good news is legislation has been proposed by The Senate Commerce Committee for more regulation (Messick & Gavrilovic, 2014).

Do you think consumers should have more control over what information is collected and have the ability to opt-out?


Messick, G. (Producer), & Gavrilovic, M (Producer). (2014, March 9). The data brokers. 60 Minutes [Video].  Retrieved from

Dwoskin, E. (2014, Jan 13). What secrets your phone is sharing about you. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (2013, December 18).  A review of the data broker industry: Collection, use, and sale of consumer data for marketing purposes [pdf document]. Retrieved from

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This entry was posted in B2B Marketing, B2B Social Media Marketing, Consumer Privacy, Digital Communications, Internet Marketing, Marketing, Social Media, Social Media Marketing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Data Mining: Big Brother Is Watching

  1. Sharon VanDell says:

    Really interesting Judy! Scary too.

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