Data companies are scooping up enormous amounts of information about almost every American. They sell information about whether you're pregnant or divorced or trying to lose weight, about how rich you are and what kinds of cars you have.
So they don't sell information about my health?
Actually, they do.
Data companies can capture information about your "interests" in certain health conditions based on what you buy — or what you search for online. Datalogix has lists of people classified as "allergy sufferers" and "dieters." Acxiom sells data on whether an individual has an "online search propensity" for a certain "ailment or prescription."
Consumer data is also beginning to be used to evaluate whether you're making healthy choices.
One health insurance company recently bought data on more than three million people's consumer purchases in order to flag health-related actions, like purchasing plus-sized clothing, the Wall Street Journal reported. (The company bought purchasing information for current plan members, not as part of screening people for potential coverage.)
Spokeswoman Michelle Douglas said that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina would use the data to target free programming offers to their customers.
Douglas suggested that it might be more valuable for companies to use consumer data "to determine ways to help me improve my health" rather than "to buy my data to send me pre-paid credit card applications or catalogs full of stuff they want me to buy."
Do companies collect information about my social media profiles and what I do online?
As we highlighted last year, some data companies record — and then resell — all kinds of information you post online, including your screen names, website addresses, interests, hometown and professional history, and how many friends or followers you have.
Acxiom said it collects information about which social media sites individual people use, and "whether they are a heavy or a light user," but that they do not collect information about "individual postings" or your "lists of friends."
More traditional consumer data can also be connected with information about what you do online. Datalogix, the company that collects loyalty card data, has partnered with Facebook to track whether Facebook users who see ads for certain products actually end up buying them at local stores, as the Financial Times reported last year.
Is there a way to find out exactly what these data companies know about me?
You have the right to review and correct your credit report. But with marketing data, there's often no way to know exactly what information is attached to your name — or whether it's accurate.
Most companies offer, at best, a partial picture.
While Acxiom lets consumers review some of the information the company sells about them, New York Times reporter Natasha Singer discovered this summer that only a sliver of information is shared, including whether you have a prison record or bankruptcy filings.
When Singer finally received her report, all it included was a record of her residential addresses.
Some companies do offer more access. A spokeswoman for Epsilon said it allows consumers to review "high level information" about their data — like whether or not you're listed as making a purchase in the "home furnishings" category. (Requests to review this information cost $5 and can only be made by postal mail.)
RapLeaf, a company that advertises that it has "real-time data" on 80 percent of U.S. email addresses, says that it gives customers "total control over the data we have on you," and allows them to review and edit the categories (like "estimated household income" and "Likely Political Contributor to Republicans") that RapLeaf has connected with their email addresses.