Concerned about the sale of your address, birth date, or health data? You should be – and the law fails to safeguard you.

Concerned about the sale of your address, birth date, or health data? You should be – and the law fails to safeguard you.

A new report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reveals that Australians are unaware and unable to control how data brokers are spreading their personal information. This lack of knowledge and control exposes them to scams, fraud, manipulation, and discrimination. Many individuals are unaware of the type of data that has been collected about them and shared or sold by data firms and other third parties.

Data brokers profit by collecting information about individuals from various sources and sharing this personal data with their business clients. This can include detailed profiles of a person’s family, health, finances, and movements. Some data brokers are large multinational companies with billions of dollars in revenue.

The ACCC received evidence from consumer and privacy advocates regarding concerning data broker practices. For example, one woman received targeted medical advertising and tried to find out how data brokers obtained her information. Although she never discovered the source, she found out that it included her name, date of birth, contact details, and inferences about her retiree status, having no children, not having “high affluence,” and being likely to donate to a charity.

The ACCC also found that data brokers were creating lists of potentially vulnerable individuals, including children, elderly people living alone, religious minorities, unemployed people, and those experiencing financial distress. These vulnerabilities could be exploited by scammers or unscrupulous advertisers.

Despite 74% of Australians feeling uncomfortable with their personal information being shared or sold, data brokers continue to sell and share this information. Businesses that individuals interact with also buy data from data brokers and provide them with more information. Consumers have not been given a choice in this matter.

Privacy terms are often presented on a “take it or leave it” basis, even for transactions like applying for a rental property or buying insurance. These terms use vague wording and descriptions that confuse consumers and have no fixed meaning.

This report is the first in-depth examination of data broker practices in Australia and comes a decade after a similar inquiry was conducted in the United States. The ACCC report examined the practices of nine data brokers and other “data firms” operating in Australia.

The current Privacy Act, drafted in 1988, does not adequately address the complexities of digital data practices. Privacy laws in California and the European Union provide stronger protections. The government plans to introduce a privacy law reform bill in August, and the ACCC report emphasizes the need for amendments, including a direct right of action for individuals and a rule requiring fair and reasonable dealings in personal information.