How Data Brokers Exert Control Over Our Lives From The Shadows

On 25 October 2018, members of the Global Data Justice team attended a workshop on data brokers held by Tech Solidarity NL, a grassroots community of Dutch tech workers that advocate for designing and developing a more responsible, just, and egalitarian technology. The meeting took place in the context of the IMPAKT Festival in Utrecht, dedicated to exploring how social reality is shaped by technological structures and opaque operating systems. This turned out to be the perfect backdrop against which to discuss data brokers and their business models.

By now, we have become somewhat accustomed to tech giants like Google and Facebook knowing us on a very intimate level; oftentimes, we even offer them our personal data ourselves, in exchange for a ‘free’ service they provide. But what about companies that are less known and exposed, yet seem to hold massive information about us; information that can sometimes have a profound effect on our everyday lives?
This is how Thomas Muntz, an investigative journalist who was the main guest of the workshop, introduced the topic of data brokers: companies that sell profiles of individuals based on aggregated personal data. Muntz presented on how the systems are built as well as their impacts. He focused on the case of debt collection agencies and their daughter companies that compile databases with information on individuals’ debt and recorded payment behaviour, which can be – and are – used by basic utility service providers or insurers to assess how ‘appropriate’ their prospective clients are as payers. Several data brokers like these operate in the Netherlands; Focum is the one that possesses the largest database with scores on more than 10 million people. Such services are in demand, as nowadays many debts arise not from having a bank credit, but from missing payments on, for example, utility services or rent. With the actual credit information stored and accessible only under strict rules, such data brokers’ databases are (rather perversely) appealing.

The information fed into these databases comes from various sources, apparently also from court bailiffs collecting debts on behalf of various creditors. Data brokers then calculate the scores using distinctive criteria, such as which neighbourhood one lives in or what can be inferred about one’s origin from their last name. It seems data quality and accuracy are not really paid much attention to. The data-flows from creditors to collectors and then to consumers of such databases are highly muddy as the whole business model is basically designed on the large scale violation of information obligations, with individuals that are the actual subjects of the data being oblivious to these behind-the-scenes practices. Well, unaware, until they are denied car insurance, a mobile telephone or internet subscription, energy supply, housing … based on their payment behaviour scores.

This picture is definitely not a pretty one; it is apparent that more needs to be done with regards to actually enforcing data protection rules and other applicable regulatory frameworks. We also touched upon how effective – and fair – it actually is to put the individual in the position to challenge these systemic imbalances and the responsibility and accountability of companies that use these databases to appraise their potential customers. In this light, citizen pressure, as well as empirical research on global data markets represent an essential base to inform governance debates around this issue.

For those interested, here is the link to the full article on the debt industry published in De Groene Amsterdammer, which is a result of the journalistic investigation into data brokers in the Netherlands that Muntz was a part of.

About the project

Places and populations that were previously digitally invisible are now part of a ‘data revolution’ that is being hailed as a transformative tool for human and economic development. Yet this unprecedented expansion of the power to digitally monitor, sort, and intervene is not well connected to the idea of social justice, nor is there a clear concept of how broader access to the benefits of data technologies can be achieved without amplifying misrepresentation, discrimination, and power asymmetries.

We therefore need a new framework for data justice integrating data privacy, non-discrimination, and non-use of data technologies into the same framework as positive freedoms such as representation and access to data. This project will research the lived experience of data technologies in high- and low-income countries worldwide, seeking to understand people’s basic needs with regard to these technologies. We will also seek the perspectives of civil society organisations, technology companies, and policymakers.