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Abusive practices on the web
The EU cookie consent law was an attempt to counteract the unethical practices of some internet surveillance companies, also known as web analytics. They gather as much data as they can about your browsing and search habits, track your movements across the web, construct profiles about you, and sell those profiles on to 3rd parties. Companies like Google, Yahoo!, and Amazon claim that they only use your profiles to target you with advertising, i.e. those adverts that seem to follow you around the web wherever you go. However, that’s not the whole story as an article by the UK’s Private Eye investigative journalism and satirical humour magazine pointed out:
“Eyespy: Dodgy data deals
SILICON Roundabout is the groovy name for the UK tech sector, backed with taxpayer cash through Big Society organisations like Tech City Investment Organisation and the Technology Strategy Board and estimated to be worth £225bn, or 12% of GDP, by 2016. But since almost all this will come from “big data” – information gathered for marketing purposes – our blossoming industry might more accurately be called Surveillance Roundabout.
Between them, consumer intelligence companies, credit reporting agencies and data marketing firms hold detailed and current information on almost the entire population. They often suffer data breaches at the hands of hackers, who then use the loot (name, address, national insurance number, etc) for identity theft and fraud. Since there is no law requiring big data companies to reveal hacking or even use encryption, it usually gets covered up. Only when the damage is massive do we see it in the news, as was the case with Experian, Barclays, Lexis-Nexis and Equifax recently.
Besides safekeeping, such an intrusive industry raises another question: is sensitive personal information now mere merchandise? Most UK data brokers have sense enough to hide their creepier practices, but there are exceptions. Clear Data Ltd, based in Herefordshire, advertises lists of old people (“over 65 and mostly female”) waiting to be targeted by quack doctors, boiler room conmen, telephone raffle operators, and pyramid schemers in need of credulous targets. Data Broker Limited, from Cheshire, caters to predatory lenders — “[if you’re] offering new loans to people With poor credit history and [county court Judgments against them], Databroker have the largest list related to loans for postal, telephone, mobile, SMS, email and social media campaigns”.
The company also provides lists of consumers who “seek online relationships”. If you can’t get a loan or a shag, we’ll let the right people know. Or if you’re struggling with a betting habit, a firm like the Data Octopus of Manchester might pass on your details in one of its databases of habitual gamblers.
While Washington is looking hard at Silicon Valley data brokers in the US, a recent Senate inquiry describing them as secretive and opaque, the chances of scrutiny here look slim, even though some of the biggest companies directly named in the inquiry report — Epsilon, Experian and Acxiom — also operate extensively in the UK.
UK politicians love getting into bed with trendy tech companies — David Cameron has extensive connections with Google, the tax-dodging behemoth whose revenue model is data surveillance. And how many of our legislators and regulators know anything about the web? Judging by how the Data Protection Act is taken as a joke by techies and as a useless tool by prosecutors, few indeed.”
Source: Private Eye, No. 1632, 21st March – 3rd April, 2014, Page 31.
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