Privacy Tools: Opting Out from Data Brokers

In the course of writing my book, Dragnet Nation, I tried various strategies to protect my privacy. In this series of blog posts, I try to distill the lessons from my privacy experiments into a series of useful tips for readers.

Data brokers have been around forever, selling mailing lists to companies that send junk mail. But in today’s data-saturated economy, data brokers know more information than ever about us, with sometimes disturbing results.

Earlier this month, OfficeMax sent a letter to a grieving father addressed to “daughter killed in car crash.” And in December, privacy expert Pam Dixon testified in Congress that she had found data brokers selling lists with titles such as “Rape Sufferers” and “Erectile Dysfunction sufferers.” And retailers are increasingly using this type of data to make from decisions about what credit card to offer people or how much to charge individuals for a stapler.

During my book research, I sought to obtain the data that brokers held about me. At first, I was excited to be reminded of the address of my dorm room and my old phone numbers. But thrill quickly wore off as the reports rolled in. I was equally irked by the reports that were wrong—data brokers who thought I was a single mother with no education—as I was by the ones that were correct—is it necessary for someone to track that I recently bought underwear online? So I decided to opt out from the commercial data brokers.

It wasn’t easy. There is no law requiring data brokers to offer opt-outs. Of the 212 data brokers that I managed to identify, less than half—92—accepted opt-outs. Of those, a majority—65—required me to submit some form of identification, such as a driver’s license to opt out. Twenty-four sites required the opt-out forms to be sent by mail or fax. In some cases, I decided not to opt-out because the service seemed so sketchy that I didn’t want to send in any additional information.

Still, I achieve some minor successes: A search for my name on some of the largest people-search Web sites, such as Intelius and Spokeo, yields no relevant results.

So, for those who want to try my strategy, here are the two spreadsheets I put together with the names of companies that track your information, links to their privacy pages, and instructions on how to opt out, in the cases where they offered them.

The first spreadsheet below is a list of data brokers who will give you copies of your data. (You can scroll around inside the box below, and you can also download your own copy of the spreadsheet, in Excel format, or as a CSV file.) The second is the list of data brokers from whom I sought to opt-out, with the ones that allowed opt-outs highlighted. (Download that one as Excel or CSV.)

Good luck!

Companies that let you download your data:

All of the companies I tried to opt out of:

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7 comments on “Privacy Tools: Opting Out from Data Brokers
  1. Matt Nagel says:

    This is an incredible resource. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Michael Moore says:

    Excellent information, Julia! Thank you!

    and nice piece on NPR this morning. Well done!

  3. L Drew says:

    What is there to ensure these brokers drop your info once you opt out? Trust?

  4. Tom L says:

    This is a great resource! Unfortunately, it demonstrates how we lose the battle often because they are not under much control and you have to go through may layers to get what should be a right.

    Thank you for your work.

  5. Jennifer says:

    The worst problem we’ve had is that the State of Alabama sells our information because my husband has a nurse practitioner license. They claim that having a professional license issued by the state means that they have to reveal his personal information under the freedom of information act. They claim it’s “public information” and isn’t a privacy violation. Just today we got two items in the mail that could only come from the information they sell. One was from Suntrust Bank offering a “medical professionals loan.” The other was from a company that offers continuing education for medical professionals.

  6. Sam says:

    American List Counsel, Inc. begins describing a link as being and Opt-out form, when in fact, clicking on it does nothing…and you have to read through the html hovertext to pull out an email address. I have yet to receive a reply from that email address with opt-out information.

  7. daniel says:

    I agree this is a great list. But I by nature am a skeptic.

    By providing these organizations the required information/authentication in order to opt out, they are capturing/confirming more data on you!

    I am “certain” that some of the organization listed are not to be trusted and have some “backdoor” method to retain and further commercialize your data.

    So I am wary and wouldn’t spend the time trying to opt-out and then “hoping” that it is successful.

    The problem is that these companies all depend on this data for their commercial profits. There is no commercial penalty for failure to block/erase/and not use your data.

    I think it is a helpless situation in the USA. At least the Europeans have some meager beliefs that your data is private.

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