The letter also refers to databases maintained by British International RELX and Canadian conglomerate Thomson Reuters, which, according to CUNY law professor Sarah Lamdan, author Data Cartels: Companies Who Control and Manage Our InformationThey have records for about two-thirds of the US population, which track where they live and map relationships and families.
In 2020 alone, data brokers shelled out $29 million as they tried to thwart law enforcement efforts to restart their business, according to data revealed by The Markup.
While most data collectors agree that they are subject to the FCRA’s jurisdiction, some have escaped legal scrutiny by relying on what attorneys suing Chopra believe to be flawed legal analysis. Some companies share their products and information they collect so they don’t track what credit reporting companies call “header information,” which is often people’s names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, as well as phone records and places of residence. This, despite the fact that the data comes from sources clearly under the law.
Laura Rivera, a lawyer at Just Futures Law, said: “Data brokers are packing the same information about us in different products and claiming that some of the information cannot be protected by law.” “It’s dishonest, exploitative, and creates real problems for consumers of all kinds, especially low-income people of color, including immigrants.”
“In advocating for data sellers, we’re simply asking the CFPB to restore the scope of the law as originally intended by Congress,” added Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer at the National Consumer Law Center who has noted several court-ordered enforcement actions. judgments over the years that brought down the FCRA.
Formerly disadvantaged communities are facing a bigger challenge, says Wu, pointing to the sale of information about some of America’s poorest communities to “payday” lenders. In fact, data brokers make huge profits from companies whose sole purpose is to identify consumers who are experiencing financial distress. For example, a 2013 US Senate report stated that these products are often bought by companies that “sell cheap loans and other risky products”—unscrupulous businesses that make bread and butter for financially vulnerable people, including widows.
Companies that play fast and loose with their data have angered consumer advocates and Capitol Hill privacy hawks for years, resulting in little benefit for consumers. In 2021, several service companies that have long stolen customers’ phone, data, and power for their own profit agreed to end their sales practice to Thomas Reuters, who handed them over to government agencies and police, including US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Selling the personal information people provide to sign up for energy, water, and other essentials, and giving them a choice in the matter, is an abuse of consumer privacy,” said US Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. and a leading critic of the government, in a letter to Chopra at the time.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency, the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are among the many government agencies known to purchase private information about Americans, including what law enforcement agencies often want. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that police and intelligence agencies did not have the right to compel businesses to turn over location information from cellphones and other devices without permission.
The decision did not stop the government from going to court. The Department of Justice, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Pentagon, and hundreds or thousands of state and local law enforcement agencies have interpreted the decision as not placing restrictions on their ability to purchase location information instead.