The potential downfall of collecting and selling consumer data.

It turns out that your private internet browsing might not be so private after all.

Enter: data brokers, who analyze online consumers’ internet history, past purchases, social media interest groups, and more to collect a staggering amount of consumer data and generate profiles based on this information. Corporate entities such as advertisers, insurance agencies, and healthcare firms can then buy the reports and target individual consumers based on their political affiliations, health concerns, net worth, religion, and ethnicity.

As marketers, we know how valuable consumer information is for tailoring content toward the right groups of people. But is there potential for foul play?

Can Data Collection Promote Discrimination?

While selling data may seem innocent enough, the real threat is much more sinister than creepy ads tailored to your recent search history and personal interests. “The concern is not only the fact that consumer profiles are being created, but how they are being used,” Julie Brill, former commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, told NPR.

Indeed, the potential for more sinister applications of consumer data is huge. For example, any time information is used to categorize individuals based on demographics, there is an inherent threat of discrimination. For instance, while on the campaign trail, Donald Trump floated the idea of creating a Muslim registry. Because the data brokerage industry currently has no specific guidelines or regulations, these types of consumer databases could, in theory, be created and used for discriminatory purposes.

Will Data Brokers Comply?

Many tech companies have gone on record stating that they would never participate in the creation of such databases: “Equality for all people is a core value of Salesforce, and we oppose any effort to discriminate against anyone,” a company spokesperson declared in an email to CNNMoney. But to actually prevent something like this from happening would require “a critical mass of data brokers and analysts to refuse to build any databases that would discriminate against people in general.”

Three data brokerage companies, Acxiom, Recorded Future, and CoreLogic, said they would not help to build a Muslim registry under any circumstances. But it’s hard to say that all 5,000 data brokers currently operating worldwide would necessarily take the moral highroad.

“The paradox with data brokers is that the government would have to adopt laws to regulate and enforce ethical collection and distribution of data,” says Pam Dixon, Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum. “And it’s the incoming administration that has proposed the registries in the first place.”

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Author Ami Foote

A graduate of the University of South Carolina, Ami is a staff writer at L&T. She has previously written for, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Britax Child Safety, and a variety of non-profits around the country. On a good day, you can find Ami obsessively consuming one or all of the following: folk music, NPR, black coffee, jeopardy, or Guinness.

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