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Little-known data brokers know more about you than your closest friends

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The little-known companies that underpin millions of transactions on and off the internet probably know more about you than your closest relatives or friends.

Why it matters: Data brokers have been around for decades, but they've grown increasingly powerful in the internet era due to their ability to instantaneously capture information about people as they surf the web.

  • Most brokers buy and sell "third-party" data, meaning they collect user information, even though they don't have a direct relationship with that user.
  • Big web publishers, like Facebook, Google or even popular news sites, often buy data from data brokers to sell better-targeted ads.

The big picture: Facebook's Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal last year shed light on just how murky those transactions can be, and how invasive it can feel to consumers who are largely unaware of the ways their data is being harvested.

  • A new Vermont law requires that data brokers register with the government, revealing 121 data brokers that mine everything from political affiliations to credit scores.

Yes, but: Despite increased scrutiny, data brokers are doing just fine.

  • Acxiom and Experian — two of the largest data brokers — have seen financial gains over the past year.
  • Equifax, a U.S.-based credit data company that experienced a massive breach in 2017, has largely recovered financially from the snafu, and Congress hasn't meaningfully addressed the incident.