Tutorial: Data Brokers and People Search Sites

What are data brokers and people search sites?

Data brokers are companies that collect information about you from a wide range of sources.  They create detailed profiles about you.  They then sell or share your personal information with others, including:

  • Businesses and other organizations
  • Government agencies
  • Other individuals 

People search sites are data brokers that specialize in providing personal information (such as your age, phone number or address) to others online.

How do data brokers obtain information about me?

Data brokers obtain their information from a large number of sources.  It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how your information was obtained.  Data brokers are not transparent about where their data comes from.  Potential sources of information include:

  • Government and public records
  • Self-reported information from warranty cards, sweepstakes entries, contests, and surveys
  • Social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn
  • Retailers, magazine subscriptions, and online services

What kinds of information do data brokers collect?

Data brokers collect a wide range of personal information about consumers.  Much of this information is demographic in nature, and may include:

  • Name
  • Address and previous addresses
  • Telephone numbers
  • email address
  • Age and gender
  • Marital status and number and ages of children
  • Real estate ownership
  • Political affiliation
  • Estimated income level
  • Educational level
  • Occupation

Some data brokers collect lists of people experiencing life events such as getting married, having a baby, moving, buying a home, or getting divorced.

Who uses data broker information?

Data brokers sell the information that they have compiled to a wide range of customers.  These customers may include financial institutions, insurance companies, the hospitality industry, cable and telecommunications companies, political campaigns, retail stores, government entities, and law enforcement agencies.  People search sites provide personal information online directly to individuals.

Are there different types of data brokers?

Data brokers are categorized based upon the type of information that they provide.  Of greatest concern are people search sites, which provide personal information online. Individuals may use people search sites to find lost friends or to “snoop” on individuals.  They are sometimes used to facilitate stalking or for other nefarious purposes.  Although people search sites are generally intended for use by individual consumers, they can also be used by organizations, law enforcement agencies, private investigators, and the media. 

Other data brokers provide:

  • Marketing products used to create tailored marketing messages to consumers including junk mail, telemarketing, and online marketing.
  • Risk mitigation products used to confirm the identity of an individual or help detect fraud.

How accurate is data broker information?

The accuracy of data broker information varies significantly, depending upon the quality control procedures of the specific data broker.  Data brokers providing people search products generally do not assess their sources for accuracy. 

Do I have any legal right to see, correct, or “opt out” of the information that data brokers have compiled?

No federal law provides such rights, unless the data broker is a credit reporting agency (CRA). CRAs provide data that is used by issuers of credit or insurance, or by employers, landlords, and others in making eligibility decisions affecting consumers.  It’s important to note that most data brokers are not CRAs.

If a data broker engages in activity the causes it to become a CRA, then consumers gain certain rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act

  • Consumers have the right to access the data that a CRA maintains about them. 
  • Consumers also have the right to correct any errors.

Two California laws offer certain individuals limited protection from having their personal information posted online by data brokers:

  • Victims of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault registered with the Safe at Home program can submit an “opt-out” form that prevents an online data broker company from posting his or her personal information online.
  • Designated California public safety, elected or appointed officials have the right under California Government Code section 6254.21 to have their home addresses and telephone numbers removed from the Internet. 

How can I remove my personal information from people search sites?

Some people search sites offer a method to “opt-out”.  Procedures vary from one site to another and may be included in the privacy policy or terms of service of the site.  Some sites require you to provide detailed personal information (such as a state-issued ID) before suppressing the information from their databases.  This often deters individuals from requesting an “opt-out”. You will need to decide if you are comfortable providing this information.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse maintains a list of people search sites.  The list indicates whether a particular site offers an “opt-out” and may be useful for individuals trying to remove their personal information from these sites. Although this list of people search websites is lengthy, it is by no means comprehensive.  Our Consumer Guide provides more information about data brokers and people search sites.