Confronting privacy and ethical risks of Big Data

Companies secretly collecting and selling information about your online behavior

The large-scale information collection, information sale, and free access to sensitive, private information, accompanied by inadequate regulatory controls, leaves much room for misuse. Those who desire to limit access to their personal details find themselves with scant options as, in a majority of instances, parties that collect data are able to categorize, store, and sell free or captured information without the consent of the concerned individual. Even in instances where information is voluntarily given to social networking or e-shopping websites, web users cannot control who the information will be sold to (Tsesis, 2014). The data industry is currently a three-hundred-billion-dollar-per-annum industry, with around three million employees in the US alone. Information brokers attempt to understand customer identity and interests. For organizational delivery of more relevant advertisements to customers, data-brokering companies have to provide information on services and products of potential interest to buyers. All data collected and used by them is legal, secure, and accurate. All kinds of businesses, right from small companies to Fortune 500 corporations, are clients of these companies (Morris & Lavandera, 2012).

Information is immensely valuable to individuals as well as companies. Data-brokering organizations’ critics claim average consumers are unaware of the fact that their sensitive information is sold by such sites. They assert that this constitutes a potential privacy risk. However, on the other hand is the fact that major decision-making on real buyers is done on the basis of virtual buyer-related data (Morris & Lavandera, 2012). Akin to a majority of other innovations, big data is a two-edged sword bringing with it immense benefits. It enables large-scale organizational personalization of services and products, facilitates business risk mitigation and drives novel business models and services (Buytendijk & Heiser, 2013). In this paper, the unanticipated harm to organizations and people if data scientists are permitted to run riot will be addressed.

The client base of information brokers is ever increasing, with clients keen on getting to know people’s spending habits, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, specific illnesses (like HIV/AIDS, depression, drug abuse, and diabetes), etc. Such data can be directly accessed from data brokers’ records or predicted using other data. Finding out what all personal data is being disseminated and correcting it is virtually impossible. To complicate matters, data brokering is a completely legal industry, with brokers known to be particularly secretive (Boutin, 2016).

Data brokerage’s main threat is that though several brokers (perhaps honestly) assert that they merely provide public information for preventing fraud or verifying people’s identity, the market for consumer scores is swiftly growing. Consumer scores refer to computer-generated numbers which try to predict one’s chances of clearing debts or falling ill (like FICO credit scores, though they are not regulated with regard to factors which may be utilized, score transparency, and contributory factors). This gives rise to the following three potential issues. Firstly, these scores are secret – sellers don’t give out details and users are typically virtually unknown. Further, information gathered is normally inaccurate and unexamined. Examination is probably an extortionately costly process. Brokers and buyers know the data isn’t perfectly accurate, but the latter still utilize it as incorrect information is better than no information. Lastly, consumers are able to do nothing about this. They are unaware of what information is sold, by whom, to whom, and for what purpose. The general idea is that specific lists are being circulated, and not scores apparently non-relevant to the actual information. Also, there is no means of seeing or correcting this data about oneself (Boutin, 2016).

Information brokers gather individuals’ personal details via private as well as public sources (ranging from websites and store sales to court records), followed by selling them to diverse buyers. Much of information brokerage is utilized in the areas of traditional marketing, identity verification and fraud prevention (Boutin, 2016). “Big Data” firms aid consumers in eliminating spam emails and website ads. Information brokers provide customers access to relevant offers and free content. The advertising has a more informative purpose – relevant, helpful, in-depth information is provided to bring business success. For numerous firms, consumer information provides a means of better understanding and meeting demands. Customer behavior analysis, together with analysis of feedback and reviews, can help firms agilely modify their services, products and digital presence for better suiting the present marketplace (Uzialko, 2018).

Firms enhance overall consumer experience using consumer information as well as take personalized-level decisions. Contextualized information aids firms in understanding consumer response to and engagement with marketing campaigns, which will facilitate appropriate adjustments. Such information is highly valuable to advertisers; hence, its ever-growing demand. But this implies that the more incongruent data sources relied on by data brokers, the more detailed the information and the more earnings through selling this data. Information privacy regulations have been altering how companies obtain, store, examine and share consumer information. Companies untouched up till now by information privacy regulations may expect such regulations to proliferate with the growth in number of consumers demanding privacy rights. Nevertheless, information gathering by private firms will not likely stop; rather, its form will simply change as data brokers adapt themselves to novel regulations and laws (Uzialko, 2018).


The former data keeping business has now become data reaping, leading to the secret gathering of records on several million US citizens. Consumers, rather than companies, ought to be able to control their private information. But the trend of consumer data gathering and selling will probably only increase swiftly and any attempt at escaping it appears futile. It would do better to concentrate, instead, on establishing what information is acceptable to gather and use and what is not, and how information brokers may be prevented from keeping consumer information secret from consumers themselves.






Boutin, P. (2016, June 16). There’s very little oversight in the industry of data brokers. Retrieved September 4, 2018, from

Buytendijk, F., & Heiser, J. (2013). Confronting the privacy and ethical risks of Big Data. Retrieved September 4, 2018, from

Morris, J., & Lavandera, E. (2012, August 23). Why big companies buy, sell your data. Retrieved September 4, 2018, from

Tsesis, A. (2014). The right to erasure: Privacy, data brokers, and the indefinite retention of data. Wake Forest L. Rev., 49, 433.

Uzialko, A. C. (2018, August 03). How Businesses Are Collecting Data (And What They’re Doing With It). Retrieved September 4, 2018, from



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