Your data is for sale from election data brokers

David Strom 28 Oct 2020

How to stay protected against middlemen who sell your data collections

By now, many of you know that your online shopping and social media usage patterns can be tracked and recorded. This includes data about your political preferences, which is especially relevant given the approaching elections.

In previous posts, we have discussed these implications – either by abuses such as scraping your social media accounts and the use of browser canvas fingerprinting techniques. Both can and have been abused by several data collectors and brokers. Here are several tips on how to take control over your digital identity.

In this post, we examine these brokers and what you can do about protecting yourself with a new feature added recently to Avast’s BreachGuard software.

What are data brokers?

Data brokers are companies that collect and bundle your information to third parties interested in targeting you as a consumer, a buyer, and sometimes your political affiliation in advance of an election. They are in business to sell this information, which usually includes your full name, age, gender, email address, phone number, date of birth, place of residence, personal interests, buying habits, education level, income and other personal details. You would think this wouldn’t be legal, but you would be wrong.

The brokers combine data from various online tracking programs along with access to public records: if you own a home, have a police record, or haven’t paid your taxes, this data will find its way into your profile. Think about your online experiences: every picture you post, every “like” you give, every search you make, every product you order online provides more information about your preferences that will be useful to someone. What’s more is that the brokers are also able to access your location history if it is enabled on your phone and other devices. The data brokers are middlemen who sell data collections, and these differ from the social media and other Internet vendors who sell advertising based on collections of your anonymized data. 

One group of brokers specializes in collecting and selling voting data, which is used to target the ads that you see on your social and web pages and that’s what I want to talk about in today’s post. One of the biggest political brokers is called L2. The news site CNET wrote about them earlier this year. “Campaigns use this data to raise money, find and persuade new voters, and compel their base to vote,” they wrote. L2 and other political brokers combine the voting data with your digital tracks to make for a very compelling profile for campaigns to use in their ad buys.

Combine micro-segmentation with politics and you have a very potent way to change the vote. Witness this report of the 2016 election, which found that this targeting increased the probability that a non-aligned voter would decide to vote for candidate Trump by at least five percentage points.

These political brokers are using and selling your personal information so they can spend their funds on reaching undecided voters, or those voters who could play an important role in swing districts. Witness what happened in the 2016 elections, when a few thousand voters made the difference in the overall electoral tallies.

How to better protect your privacy

If the concept of data brokers concerns you, you should look at how you can better protect your privacy with Avast’s BreachGuard. It will include the ability to remove your data from the L2 political broker along with 16 other general data brokers. While (somewhat ironically) there is a lot of information to include to eliminate your listing, it can be helpful in reducing your exposure.

One other feature of BreachGuard bears mention here, and that is what is called Privacy Advisor. This is a series of proscriptive techniques that you can use to improve your privacy options. Many of the online social media products now include a myriad of options that can be set to restrict who sees your posts and who can search on your personal data, such as your birthday or phone number. What is nice about this feature is that you can click on the suggestions and be taken directly to the place within Google or Facebook where you can directly set these options, where as an example you can disable personalized ads and thus make political manipulation more difficult.

Avast’s BreachGuard is currently just for U.S. Windows users, although soon, Avast will also launch both a non-U.S. version and Mac software. Avast will soon augment the number of data brokers included in its protective envelope and perhaps add other Privacy Advisor scripts.

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