Government Sells Your Private Data To Marketing Companies

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Why pay taxes when the government can use you – and your personal information – as a cash cow?

By selling data about individuals to marketing companies – and who has more data on people than the government? – the state can profit handsomely. And government doesn’t need to inform you about what’s going on, nor does it need your permission.

According to an investigative report by CBS Denver, that’s exactly what government – at every level – is doing.

The report interviewed a local businessman who’d begun suspecting that the deluge of well-targeted marketing material inundating his mailbox seemed to come from a source that must be highly informed about his preferences, habits and even recent major events in his life.

He was right: the Colorado Secretary of State’s office was selling his data. A spokesperson for the office confirmed that business owners’ information can be sold to private third-party marketing outfits for anywhere from $200 to $12,000 a pop. And the practice is still young and ripe for enrichment: the Secretary of State only made $59,000 from such sales last year.

“It feels like a betrayal,” said business owner Eric Meer, “Because our government is supposed to protect us, not to sell our information and profit from us.”

In addition to information about people who run their own businesses, the Secretary of State’s office in Colorado also sold voter registration information to marketing companies. Like the business data, the office claims that sale was a cost-recovery operation intended only to help defray the office’s costs of associated with database management.

(As an aside, how hard can it really be to go through the supposedly controversial voter verification process when people you don’t even know can tell you if you’re a registered voter?)

On the local level, Denver’s city clerk’s office sells homeowners’ data in cases involving foreclosures, refinancings or direct home sales. And it doesn’t stop there:

Do you ever notice a surge of confusing mail after refinancing, a foreclosure, or buying a house? The Denver Clerk and Recorder made $32,000 last year selling home sale data.

It happens in college, too. The University of Colorado Boulder buys names from the SAT for 33 cents each and names from the ACT for 34 cents each for recruiting purposes. CU sells student information to private meal plans and storage companies for $15,000 a year.

Even death is for sale. The Social Security Administration sells a “Master Death Index” for $7,500 each. The result – an onslaught of letters to surviving family members asking to purchase a home.

While it’s possible for people to limit phone contact from telemarketers by opting onto “do not call” lists, opponents of government data mining for profit have faced strong opposition from the Direct Marketing Association in mounting similar efforts to establish a “do not mail” list.

And, even if such a list ever comes into existence, the root of the problem – boundless government that answers not to citizens but to profit-motivated third parties – will remain.

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.