Who Owns Your Data? And What Can They Do With It?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 25, 2017

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Consumer ProtectionConsumers often get upset when data breaches (such as the one involving Target) lead to the theft of their personal information. That private data — including email addresses and credit card numbers — often ends up for sale on the “dark net,” to be used for identity theft and other crimes.

But what about when trusted retailers and service providers sell consumer data directly?

Competitive Intelligence

As reported by the New York Times,

Slice Intelligence, a data firm that uses an email management program called Unroll.me to scan people’s inboxes for information, faced an outcry that began on Sunday after The New York Times reported that Uber had used Slice’s data to keep tabs on its ride-hailing rival Lyft.

Unroll.me is a free service that lets users unsubscribe from email lists. It also examines email inboxes for things like receipts from companies like Lyft, then sells the information to rival companies like Uber.

The data is “anonymized.” This means that a person’s name isn’t attached to a specific piece of information, like when the ride took place or how much it cost.  However, the information is very useful to competing businesses.

Jojo Hedaya, the chief executive of Unroll.me, apologized and said that he was “surprised” about the response to the data sale. He said that the company had been open about how it used consumer data, and he pointed out via Twitter that “Gmail has more data on you than we ever would.”

Privacy Policies

As the Times noted,

What Unroll.me does is far from an anomaly — it is part of an expansive and largely unregulated world of selling personal data collected by online consumer services. As long as a service like Unroll.me has a privacy policy, adheres to it and does not sell personally identifiable information, like someone’s name, it is fairly free to package and sell the data it collects.

The Unroll.me privacy policy states that the service  “may collect, use, transfer, sell and disclose nonpersonal information for any purpose” and that the data can be used “to build anonymous market research products and services.”

Very few people actually read website privacy policies, and ever fewer understand their implications.

In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated consumer data collection and marketing practices.

According to the Times,

The F.T.C. report detailed how some of the companies classify consumers in data-driven social and demographic groups for marketing purposes with labels like “financially challenged,” “diabetes interest” and “smoker in the household.” The concern is that such classifications could be used to limit fair access to financial services or health insurance.

The FTC called on Congress to enhance protections for consumers. Congress has so far failed to act on the recommendations.

In fact, Republicans in Congress dismantled protections that would have stopped Internet service providers from tracking online activities and selling that information.

No Such Thing as a Free App

A lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) pointed out that many “free” services make money by selling user data.

As a commentator on the Unroll.me blog noted,

If it is on the internet and is free, then you are not the client or the user, you are the product.

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