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    Politico: Who watches the watchers? Big Data goes unchecked

    Politico looks beyond the National Security Agency surveillance controversy to the data collection done on everyday Americans by commercial data brokers who then sell this information to others:

    Commercial data brokers know if you have diabetes. Your electric company can see what time you come home at night. And tracking companies can tell where you go on weekends by snapping photos of your car’s license plate and cataloging your movements.

    Private companies already collect, mine and sell as many as 75,000 individual data points on each consumer, according to a Senate report. And they’re poised to scoop up volumes more, as technology unleashes a huge wave of connected devices — from sneaker insoles to baby onesies to cars and refrigerators — that quietly track, log and analyze our every move. […]

    Earlier this month, the White House again raised warnings about the erosion of personal privacy, with a report that clearly delineated the risks, as well as the promise, of the big data revolution — before calling for still more study.

    Polls suggest that Americans want more protections. A national survey by Pew Research last fall found two-thirds of Internet users said current laws weren’t adequate to protect consumer privacy online. […]

    Companies that see big profits in big data are pushing back against any talk of a crackdown. Their mantra: Regulation could stifle innovation. […]

    Privacy advocates fear all this information will find its way to the commercial data brokers who compile and sell profiles packed with details about individuals’ health, behavior, interests and preoccupations, including education level, political and religious affiliations, and address, phone numbers and email accounts.

    Some data brokers slice and dice consumer profiles into categories such as “Ethnic Second-City Strugglers,” “X-tra Needy” and “Fragile Families” for ease of marketing, the Senate Commerce Committee reported last year. One company sold lists of families afflicted by specific illnesses, from AIDS to gonorrhea — and even offered a specialty list of rape victims, until a reporter from The Wall Street Journal inquired about it.

    It’s information that privacy advocates fear could be used to discriminate against individuals — or to target them with advertising cleverly designed to exploit vulnerabilities.

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