Companies are Mining your Facebook/ Twitter Info… and Selling it (Beckett)

Lois Beckett writes at ProPublica

Yesterday, we got a rare look at how information on your public social media profiles—including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn—is being harvested and resold by large consumer data companies.

Responding to a congressional query, nine data companies provided answers to a detailed set of questions about what kinds of information they collect about individual Americans, and where they get that data. 

Their responses, released Thursday, show that some companies record — and then resell — your screen names, web site addresses, interests, hometown and professional history, and how many friends or followers you have.

Some companies also collect and analyze information about users’ “tweets, posts, comments, likes, shares, and recommendations,” according to Epsilon, a consumer data company.  

While many of these details were already available on the data companies’ websites, the lawmakers used the letters as a chance to raise awareness about an industry that they said has largely “operated in the shadows.”

“Posting to Facebook should not also mean putting personal information into the hands of data reapers seeking to profit from details of consumers’ personal lives,” Massachusetts Rep. Edward J. Markey told ProPublica in an e-mailed statement.

“Users of social media want to share with friends, not enable the sale of their personal information to data miners.”

Companies that collect social network information said they only take what is publicly available, and that they follow the rules laid down by each social networking site.

Acxiom, one of the nation’s largest consumer data companies, said in its letter to lawmakers that it collects information about which social media sites individual people use, and “whether they are a heavy or a light user.”

The letter also says Acxiom tracks whether individuals “engage in social media activities such as signing onto fan pages or posting or viewing YouTube videos.”

The company said that it does not collect information about individual postings or lists of friends.

Data companies of course, do not stop with the information on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Intelius, which offers everything from a reverse phone number look up to an employee screening service, said it also collects information from Blogspot, WordPress, MySpace, and YouTube.

This information includes individual email addresses and screen names, web site addresses, interests, and professional history, Intelius said. It offers a “Social Network Search” on its website that allows you to enter someone’s name and see a record of social media URLs for that person.

Epsilon, a consumer data company that works with catalog and retail companies, said that it may use information about social media users’ “names, ages, genders, hometown locations, languages, and a numbers of social connections (e.g., friends or followers).”

It also works with information about “user interactions,” like what people tweet, post, share, recommend, or “like.”

But Epsilon said it does not connect this social media information with any other consumer information in its databases. Other companies, including Acxiom, include social media profile data as part of detailed profiles on individual consumers. 

Instead, Epsilon said, it uses information from social media sites to “provide companies with analytics insights” and “help them better understand and interact with their customers.”

Both Epsilon and Acxiom said they obtain information from third parties that specialize in collecting social network data.

Experian, the credit reporting company, said that its marketing services operation “does not collect data from social networks for the purpose of sharing such data with other entities.” It did not say whether or not it uses social network data collected by other companies. (Experian said the data used for its marketing services is “completely separate” from the data used for your individual credit report.)

Markey, the co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, and a group of other members of congress sent questions to nine companies this July, in response to a New York Times profile of Acxiom, one of America’s largest consumer data companies.

“The data brokers’ responses offer only a glimpse of the practices of an industry that has operated in the shadows for years,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement yesterday on Markey’s web site. “Many questions about how these data brokers operate have been left unanswered.”

“We continue to collaborate with the U.S. government and federal agencies to help broaden the understanding of our business practices and the enormous value that the industry creates for individuals and businesses alike. As such, we advocate for a conversation that balances privacy considerations as well as the benefits of the appropriate use of data,” Acxiom CEO Scott Howe said in an e-mailed statement.

“While we provided a thorough response to the Caucus’ request, we honored all client, partner and vendor confidentiality agreements. We remain focused on our mission to strengthen connections between people, businesses and their partners.”

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5 Responses

  1. I don’t understand why people think this shouldn’t happen with Facebook, Twitter et al. I can see why they would wish it didn’t, but these are commercial sites operating for profit.

    They are not public services and the constraints on them are commercial, not social contracts.

    If people don’t like it, well, don’t use them.

    But for some reason today there seems to be an expectation that the facilities of social media should be available on terms as if they were public infrastructure.

    They aren’t. Would people like them to be?

    • I think the main point here is that there should be more transparency. What they’re doing may be legal and ethical, but how can we know that if we don’t know what they’re doing?

      My local bar is also a public place and a for-profit enterprise, but that doesn’t mean the owner can quietly record his patrons’ conversations, make a dossier on each of them, and re-sell the info to a third party.

    • Fentex, realize that your opinion is an extremely pessimistic one (as right as it may be, and as much as I agree with you) – so that said, let me reiterate that I am totally in accord with you on this; I can’t see users in an outrage seeing as they often completely fail to read the ToS (or pay attention to any updates to the same) – remember that one April Fool’s joke by some game company that included a “by agreeing you owe us your soul” clause in a ToS?

      Truly – it’s not like Facebook is just THERE; they want to make money too – and we’re not all gonna go Diaspora, so may as well just sit down and let them mine our data…

  2. I am glad to say I have NO facebook etc account and not even a mobile phone! It is possible to survive this way.

  3. Your point of view would be fine if there wasn’t a movement to brand people not on social media as anti-social weirdos and freaks. It’s a fact that the FBI considers non-participation in social media a red flag for potential terrorists.

    I’m not on it, because I’m not interested in being traceable every single second, but in many areas now a days, if you aren’t employers won’t hire you and people won’t be friends with you. So if there really *is* a choice in the matter, let’s stop pressuring everyone to join in, hmm?

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