Your life, their business
Facebook gets most of the heat because of its outsized presence in social media. It has more than 2 billion monthly users, compared to YouTube's 1.5 billion, Instagram's 800 million and Twitter's 328 million.
But an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 companies sell data in the U.S., including many that, like Facebook, are heavily used by families with children.
One such company is Evite, a free online invitation service that is a particular concern to Mary Ross, a mother of three and former CIA counterintelligence officer. She is heading up a privacy initiative, Californians for Consumer Privacy, that is lobbying for tough new privacy laws using the slogan "Your life is not their business."
“My kids are little, and every other week, I get another Evite to a birthday party. … When you get one of those invitations, they’re selling the presence of children in the household, what their ages are, whose birthday party they’re going to, your religious affinity.
“I’d thought, oh, I’m just paying with my eyeballs — seeing these advertisements that are popping up. I had no idea they were selling information about my children — that was horrifying to me," Ross said.
As evidence, she points to a 2017 "data directory" produced by Oracle that shows that information gleaned from 22 million registered Evite users can be purchased to determine, among other things, the presence and age of children in the household, upcoming birthdays, sports that family members play and whether or not someone is an "alcohol enthusiast."
Companies analyze invitations and RSVPs to make "inferences" based on the information given in the invitation.
"The value of Evite data is that our users have taken a direct action to indicate where they will be and what they will be doing at a date in the future," the data directory says.
Other companies with data touted in the Oracle directory include the car-buying website Edmunds.com, which collects data that can help marketers find "a highly valuable consumer who owns a home, loves to shop and has a high household income," and the credit-reporting service Experian, which says in the report, "We maintain a wealth of information about consumers and how they make buying decisions. We compile data from hundreds of public and propriety sources."
The California initiative would require companies that collect, buy or share personal data to make this information obvious to the consumer, and to allow them to opt out, while prohibiting companies from punishing people who do with higher prices. It would also allow Californians to sue companies and be compensated if their data is sold after opting out, even if they can’t prove they were harmed.
Facebook is among companies that have contributed to efforts to fight the California Consumer Privacy Act, which will be on the ballot in November if supporters obtain the necessary signatures on a petition. Others include Google, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.