An Allegory About the Online Data Business

A story that illustrates a shady endeavor

Imagine having a nosy neighbor. He does not have a drone, but he always seems to be in his yard and peeks his head over the fence every time you pull up in your car, or are out barbecuing in the summer, or have friends over. You find it annoying but there’s not much you can do about it and it seems harmless enough. He’s always been nice and has returned your packages UPS delivered to him by mistake, helped you find your lost dog and so on. Creepy? A little but liveable.

Turns out though that he really is quirky, and writes down in a notebook when you’re coming and going. He writes down the license plate numbers of yours and your friends’ cars, and the dates on which you hang out or barbecue with them. More creepy, right?

Every week, the nosy neighbor takes the information about you and his other neighbor, and mixes and combines them into one report which he mails to a company far away. They send him a $50 check every month for doing this. It’s not a lot of money but he is on social security and so it helps. This seems a lot creepier now doesn’t it? The fact that this information that seems innocuous has real economic value, seems concerning. In reality though you don’t know anything about this last part happening and even if you did, how could you properly assess what (if anything) the sharing of this data is costing you?

The license plate numbers uniquely identify your car — but not you as an individual because after all, a number of household members or friends could be driving the car right? Clearly the license plate number could be gathered at other locations like the mall or outside the bank or in your office building and combined to create a record of where “someone who might have access to the car and probably lives on your street” goes, but heck that sounds like a lot of work. Clearly though if it were not a lot of work (say if your nosy neighbor or the mall had an infrared license plate scanner) and if there were a few big companies who were taking this data and combining it with things like driving records, auto manufacturer data, shopping loyalty card data, etc it could get REALLY weird!

Your nosy neighbor is like dozens of websites you visit every day. They collect data with uncertain value, often selling it to a handful of companies whose intentions they trust to be non-harmful to their visitors. They don’t make a LOT of money doing it, but it pays a few bills. And of course the true value is once it gets aggregated with other information, “appended” as the industry likes to say, to something else based on unique identifiers of which home address or email address are frequently two of the more powerful unique identifiers.

So it must have been a great relief when your neighbor left a note in your mailbox saying:

While I obviously know your home address and you gave me your email address last summer, I promise not to share that information with anyone else. A copy of this note will be pasted on my garage door for you to review, and is subject to me changing it at any time without again notifying you.

Oh good. And I heard the company is now paying its neighborhood sources $100 if email addresses are included.

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