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Communications of the ACM


Data Brokers Are Watching You

Salvador Dali Eye's, detail

Aided by advances in data science and the increased digitization of analog information, an industry little known to the public is quietly compiling comprehensive dossiers on millions of Americans. The companies, called data brokers, say they operate within the law, but the unprecedented breadth and depth of the data files, the difficulty in correcting erroneous data, and the potential for abuse of personal information are raising alarms from privacy advocates, consumer groups, and government officials.

Data brokers compile information about individuals from a wide variety of online and offline sources, including email, personal websites, social media posts, U.S. Census records, retailers' systems, Department of Motor Vehicles records, and real property records. The data is often collected without the consent or knowledge of the individuals involved, integrated and synthesized using advanced analytic tools, then sold to other data brokers and businesses for a variety of purposes.


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