Blog of Rights

Privacy For Sale

By Sandra Fulton, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 11:16am

Ron Peterson has a variety of exciting aliases. "In Florida I'm a female prostitute (named Ronnie); in Texas I'm currently incarcerated for manslaughter," Peterson, a California resident, said. "In New Mexico I'm a dealer of stolen goods. Oregon has me as a witness tamperer. And in Nevada — this is my favorite — I'm a registered sex offender." All of this is thanks to the unregulated data aggregation industry.

For decades data aggregators have been collecting information on Americans and selling it to the private sector and the government. This has become a multi-billion dollar industry with companies claiming to have tens of billions of records involving virtually every American. Since September 11, the government has become increasingly obsessed with collecting information on Americans and, to keep up with demand, these companies have developed even more ways to invade your privacy.

Data brokers are selling details on almost every aspect of our lives including DNA analysis, purchasing habits and credit history, pilot and gun licenses, eviction notices, and even lists of family and associates. In response to the growing number of cases of mistaken identity the president of backgroundchecks.com stated, “We're not in the business of authenticating the identity of individuals. All we do is report the data that's supplied to us from the courts.” Are you kidding?

Currently data aggregator companies function entirely unregulated and pose a serious threat to American citizens. They are not required to prove any of the information they are selling is accurate, there is zero transparency in what agencies they are selling it to and there is almost no way to hold them accountable for any misinformation they provide. Most often individuals have no idea they are even the subject of such an investigation.

The Privacy Act of 1974 banned the government from collecting information on citizens who are not already the subject of investigation. To get around this many agencies are just purchasing the information from data brokers. Americans know the importance of individuals having a reasonable measure of knowledge and control over how they present themselves to the world. The government has a responsibility to protect that right and is not doing so.

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering a bill called the “Personal Data Privacy and Security Act” (S. 1490) that takes a first step toward regulating this dangerous industry. The bill does not tackle the major issue of whether the government has any right to be collecting this kind of information but it will put in place some desperately needed regulation.

The ACLU’s letter of support of the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act can be found here.

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