Fact or fiction: “we won’t sell your data”.

July 9, 2024

Whether we intend to or not, every daily digital action leaves a trail of data points. Understanding how data ownership and use are handled by every organization or platform we engage with is hazy at best. We often have limited to no insight into how data is secured and maintained and what rights—or lack thereof—every account user or site visitor has to their data. 

What does it mean when a platform, brand, or business promises not to sell your data? 

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Inboxes are clogged with emails from a business or brand most folks are wholly unfamiliar with or have never interacted with. The U.S. alone generates and sends 8 billion spam emails every day.

It turns out that companies we did engage with in the past that promised not to sell our data—in this case, a highly valuable active email address—actually did. And now that third party resells to yet another third party—all without any consent from the email owner.

Great Scott! Navigating the complexities of data ownership doesn’t have to feel like Doc Brown attempting time travel. 

What does "not selling your data" actually mean?

Typically, it lives in small but noticeable text adjacent to that opt-in box you’re about to click: “We won’t sell your data to third parties.” The statement alone is intended to put minds at ease and establish trust between an organization, business, or marketer and the audience member engaging with them. How then, can organizations get away with selling it?

What that statement says, and means are two different things. The key phrase in the statement “we won’t sell your data to third parties” is “your data.” At the time of entry, the data collected by Business A - your email address - is bound by this legal agreement. But what if they move that data to a different server? Or, use it to create data profiles that are now attached to cookies that you didn’t say they couldn’t sell. Here’s what most of us don’t know: the moment a data point is altered from its original form - i.e. your email address with no other data points attached - it is no longer considered “your data”. It is now the property of the company or business. 

Every digital platform—whether we consent or not—collects large amounts of data that it can use in any capacity. 

Financial institutions and insurance firms use data for identity verification and risk assessments; advertising companies can offer more relevant (in theory) and targeted advertisements; and, more worrisome, organizations can use data to manipulate perspectives and beliefs using targeted voter data. Two words: Cambridge Analytica. 

Nuances like “notice and consent”, which are only shared in privacy policies or terms and conditions, keep data in a vulnerable state that is easy to take advantage of. Just because a company isn’t selling just your email address doesn’t mean they aren’t repackaging it up with other collected data and profiting off of it. And that’s only one way you might find yourself on an email list you never opted in to.

The leading role

Data brokers are one of the main actors in the cast of the data ownership drama. While not typically household names like Marty McFly, data brokers make up an industry that surpassed $250B in 2022 and is still growing. These companies collect, assemble, and analyze personal information to create detailed profiles of individuals, which they then sell.

Each day we actively leave trails of digital breadcrumbs: website searches, music streaming, credit card purchases, and social media posts. How much data? About 328.77 terabytes are generated, per day. Each of these data points include intimate and specific insight into our movements, preferences, beliefs, habits, health status, etc.

Ending up on an unwanted email marketing campaign list is one outcome easily solved by clicking “unsubscribe”. Other outcomes like data breaches, discrimination, and unknown surveillance aren’t so innocent.Law enforcement and other government agencies (including state and local law enforcement, the FBI, the IRS, the DEA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security) have paid data brokers to access vast databases of personal information without any legal process such as warrant, subpoena, or court order for surveillance purposes. Statutory loopholes have made this type of surveillance a real sticking point.

What about the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment protects “people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government”. The one thing we are not is Constitutional Lawyers at CommonAlly - but it’s fair to say that when the Fourth Amendment was written - the internet was not even a twinkle in the Founders’ eyes. The Brennan Center for Justice explains how unfettered access to data - both by the government and private companies - has led to “an age of surveillance capitalism, enabling a shadow digital economy of platforms and third-party data brokers that collect and commodify users’ data”.

This can lead to several less ideal outcomes for a diverse, democratic society, including:

  • Exacerbating existing biases, including those against people of color, religious beliefs, or genders;
  • Limiting freedom of speech; 
  • Limiting healthcare access 

While the Fourth Amendment hasn’t quite met up with the digital age, we argue third parties don’t have an inherent right to your data, and the practices above have no place in the present or the future. 

CommonAlly believes in preserving and protecting democracy, which includes every U.S. citizen’s  right to own, sell, and control their data. We want the power to be put back into the hands of the individual.

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We value transparency at CommonAlly, and believe your data should be yours to keep, sell, or save. When we use your data to collaborate with a third party organization, it is only with your consent. This is what we mean when we say this is the you era of data.

Aaron Lyles
wrote this,
we didn't tell them to.
He
are typically doing important
is typically doing important
Founder + CEO
things.

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