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How much are your personal details worth?

It's hardly breaking news that your personal information is being collected, aggregated, packaged and sold by data brokers every day. Each time you receive a credit card solicitation, mortgage flier or insurance offer, chances are good that the sender obtained at least some of your information from a commercial data broker.

How much are the details of your life worth on the open market?

The Swipe Toolkit, an online data calculator presented by the independent research consortium Preemptive Media, offers the going price on 46 items of personal data, including:

Data Amount

Figures in the Swipe Toolkit calculator were compiled from a handful of major data brokers, most of which you've probably never heard of: Accurint, Aristotle, ChoicePoint, Choice Trust, DocuSearch, Experian, KnowX, Merlin Data and Pallorium.

Let's take a closer look at how data brokers get our information, what they do with it and the challenges they face to keep it secure.

Ghost in the machine
Commercial data brokers collect most of their information from public records, or from specialized data providers that mine public records, such as the RBOX regional operating Bell companies, which provide telephone information from the white pages.

In many cases, the data aggregators actually sell back to government and industry the same information they collected in the first place. In fact, we'd be stuck in the slow lane as a society if they didn't, according to James Lee, chief marketing officer for ChoicePoint, the industry leader based in Alpharetta, Ga.

"The infrastructure doesn't exist for the government to share data with itself, particularly within different levels of government," Lee says. "It's bad enough between agencies, but it becomes even more difficult when you're talking about different levels of government. Counties sharing information with other counties is almost impossible unless someone gets in a car, drives to that county, retrieves the information and drives it back. What the private sector does very well is build the infrastructure which allows that information, which is public, to flow freely across jurisdictional and geographical lines. That's the benefit that the private sector has brought to this process."

ChoicePoint offers data in four business categories: insurance (Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange or CLUE reports), workplace solutions (for pre-employment background checks), government services (primarily used by law enforcement) and direct marketing (primarily used by financial institutions to market to existing customers). It also offers at a deep discount data to nonprofit groups who want to weed out criminals and sex offenders, for instance.

Next: " ... but they don't see the ghosts in the machine ..."
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