We now have a new word for businesses that sell data – data brokers. Third-party data brokers sell all manner of information to businesses, e.g.:
Turnstyle, a company that has placed hundreds of sensors throughout businesses in Toronto to gather signals from smartphones as they search for open wi-fi networks. The signals are used to uniquely identify phones as they move from street to street, café to cinema, work to home. The owner of the phone need not connect to any wi-fi network to be tracked; the whole process occurs without the knowledge of most phone users. Turnstyle anonymizes the data and turns it into reports that they sell back to businesses to help them “understand the customer” and better tailor their offers. In the example the WSJ described an Asian restaurant learned that many of its customers go to the local gym, so it made workout tank tops emblazoned with the restaurant logo.
The problem is most of these mining of personal data is done via opt-out consent. But not everyone understands how the technology works, or is aware of the possible ramifications of sharing their data. The system is acutely skewed in favour of the data collectors, and this power imbalance has to be addressed.