In 2011, filmmaker Jason Zada released a short, interactive film called Take This Lollipop on Facebook. Once it began, it was clear that the cinematic piece was terrifying on multiple levels. The cinematography and acting were well-executed, but what was disturbing concerned the viewers, who were the focus of the film. The viewer’s own private information was flashed on the screen as being researched by a stalker, who, at the end of the film, drives to a satellite street image of your last posted residence. The implications at the conclusion are rather gruesome and morbid, but more importantly than that, it caused many users to reflect on just how much info Facebook had been racking up and selling about them.
At the time, this film was a massive smear on Facebook’s reputation that blew up in the 24-hour news cycle. It prompted a response from Facebook, disclaiming the film and for a short time actually blocking it from the website.
In 2015, Facebook does not bother trying to hide their storage of your information anymore. If you go to Facebook’s business section, you can pay for your company to be promoted through targeted advertising to specific groups or locations. Google and other domains have held these practices for quite some time.
Then you hear about information brokers and data brokering.
Members of a rising career in the IT field, information brokers collect and research data about individual persons which they then compartmentalize and return to companies to sell and reap a profit.
In 2009, Congress published a review that found that while data brokers themselves are very protected (e.g, their own information having special exemptions from the records of their companies), they publish and sell collections of persons in lists such as sexual assault victims, the mentally ill and the financially vulnerable.
All this is done with little regulation or repercussions. Though there were legal attempts to clearly outline the beginnings of a regulatory system around information selling and info brokers, the bill died in-committee.
Worse yet, because information brokerage firms are unregulated and have such a powerful hold of the media, you’ve probably never heard of them, and they’d like to keep it that way. In December 2013, during another review of information brokering, an Axicom representative, one of the largest multi-billion dollar firms handling information, actually boasted that they had complete files on “at least 10 percent of the world’s” population. And yet again, in December 2013, another bill failed to pass which would have better regulated the industry.
At this period, consumers are completely vulnerable. In the previously mentioned Congressional Staff Report, opting out of these companies can often be both costly and complicated, and by no coincidence.
So for now, the best we can do is to be collectively aware of the information which we broadcast, and make better attempts to emphasize and highlight those who would be more than happy to exploit the personal data of others for a few bucks.