November , 2020
Data broking - trading personal information for business growth
11:52 am

Kuntala Sarkar



Digital engagements like scrolling social media platforms or reading newspapers online offer people entertainment or information. But behind this, a larger profitable business is going on by using the ‘users’ of these platforms. Along with data in government or public records, our information available online can be traded by some firms to other enterprises and used by those companies for growth of their businesses.

These firms are known as data brokers. They trade in personal information, preferences, dislikes, purchasing activities etc. Globally, around 4,000 data broking companies are present. 

Social media platforms create smart algorithms to understand human psychology that holds them live in social media feeds. Each of the user’s personal interests, what kinds of posts they are watching and for how many seconds - everything is under surveillance. Understanding the users’ psychology, social media show them posts of their interest to get them trapped in an endless scrolling habit. They intend to get more attention of the users which is the real currency of business. It can also be translated as ‘economising the attention’. They make profitable business by making these platforms a ‘virtual marketplace’.

J. van Dijck and T. Poell in their book ‘The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World’ wrote, “By means of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), platforms subsequently offer third parties controlled access to their platform data giving them detailed insights into user behaviour and metrics.” Now this happens against large amounts of monetary transactions.

Data broking 

Data broking is directly related to simultaneous growth of the concerned platforms and other businesses. Speaking on this, Chaitanya Bobhate, Lead MDR and Threat Hunting Specialist, IBM told BE, “The so-called social networks and data brokers have become the iconic players of the thriving big data economy; there are specific Technique and Tactic Procedures (TTPs) which is used by some malicious actors. Personal information is not an immediate threat in terms of individual financial crimes or hacking of any personal accounts. However, this is the sort of information that scammers collate into larger ‘combo files’ (often traded on the dark web) as reference for elements of authenticity when engaging in attempts at fraud or for social engineering attacks. Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups harvest the data from the particular social media platform and from some targeted companies by using the vulnerabilities and exploits. Many times, security researchers observe social engineering attack techniques which violate the users’ data. APT groups are used for data exfiltration from the targeted victim.”

The time people spend using social media might not be always very precious for the users. But it is important for these technology platforms. The brands and the technology platforms utilise every possible second to show advertisements to them. The more time the users will spend digitally, accordingly the scope of advertisement will increase. Hence, the ‘users’ become ‘audience’ of advertisements of various brands unknowingly. The more ‘digital time’ or ‘digital attention’ a platform can attract, their business will grow more. Hence, data brokers stay at the middle of public data and companies.

Bobhate added, “By using some APT and Machine Learning (ML) based algorithm social media is collecting the users’ data like mass communication. When people search some product on random shopping applications, the concerned social media algorithm syncs that data and shows a perfectly synced advertisement on their platform to that user.”

To develop accurate prediction

Data broking companies sell ‘certainty’, with great predictions. For accurate prediction, one most important thing is piles of data. Jeff Seibert, former Executive, Twitter, commented in a documentary titled ‘The Social Dilemma’, “Everything you are doing online is being tracked, measured. Every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded. Exactly what image you stop and look at, even for how long you look at it, what your personality type is.” The information is collected to create virtual profiles or models of the users to predict their future actions accurately. With this knowledge and prediction, digital platforms build an indefinite set of data – that is traded by data brokers. Data brokers offer the information of what advertisements, products or videos can attract the users most.

To do this impeccably, there is a separate discipline existing called ‘growth psychology’ - where teams of engineers hack people’s psychology to obtain more growth in digital platforms. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist of Google and Co-founder of Centre for Human Technology, in the above-mentioned documentary said, “Many people call it surveillance capitalism that is profiting off of the infinite tracking of everywhere everyone goes by large technology companies. Their business model is to make the advertisers as successful as possible.”

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