Australia’s consumer protection watchdog, the ACCC, has called on the public and business community to provide feedback on the methodologies and practices of data brokers – companies that collect and on-sell a range of consumer data, including personal details, viewing and search habits, and demographic information to businesses including financial services entities.
Data brokers harvest consumer data from a range of sources, including social media sites, internet and search services, apps, customer loyalty programs, card payment providers and public records, like electoral rolls. Data can be identifiable or de-identified (that is, anonymised).
From these collected datasets, data brokers can produce a range of saleable assets, including audience profile reports, consumer purchasing data, as well as risk and fraud management information.
Among the major data brokers being scrutinised by the ACCC include CoreLogic and PropTrack, both specialising in property data, Equifax, Experian, and Illion, primarily engaged in credit reporting, and Oracle and the CBA-backed Quantium, which have a broader remit, alongside LiveRamp and Nielsen
Many of these companies are key suppliers of data and insights to Australian financial services businesses, including for credit risk and marketing purposes.
The consultation seeks views on data brokers’ business models, the types of data being collected, and consumers’ awareness of data brokers’ operations.
Crucially, the consultation has also called for feedback on potential harms and benefits to consumers and small businesses arising from the collection, processing and analysis of data by these companies, including views on potential inaccuracies in datasets, conscious and unconscious biases in their methodologies, and misuse of data.
Critics of the data broker sector have raised concerns that data collected by these businesses can be sold without restriction and without consumers’ informed consent to, for instance, predatory loan companies, law enforcement agencies, or even malicious foreign actors.
Some of the harshest commentators have labelled the sector as “middlemen of surveillance capitalism” that could erode civil rights.
Though not within the scope of the current ACCC inquiry, concerns have also been raised over the protection of data held by data broking firms following recent high-profile breaches and data loss incidents affecting consumers here and abroad.
In response to the launch of the industry consultation, ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb noted that there is limited “transparency and awareness” of the operations of local data brokers “despite the vast amounts of information they collect about Australian consumers”.
She added that there remains a limited understanding of the “central role [data brokers] play in enabling the exchange of information between businesses”.
Cass-Gottlieb noted that “some Australian consumers may not be aware that their information is being collected, stored and sold by third-party data brokers with whom they have no direct relationship.
“This report will explore how third-party data brokers collect and use information to create products and services and if there may be competition and consumer issues arising from this,” Cass-Gottlieb said.
The ACCC’s latest consultation is part of its five-year Digital Platforms inquiry digital platform services in Australia and their impacts on competition and consumers.
Submissions to the inquiry close on 7 August.