The recent FTC report on data brokers identified a large number of publicly-available data sources. Tell us: are you making use of them in your research?

“For example, the U.S. Census Bureau provides information about the demographics of particular city blocks, such as ethnicity, age, education level, household makeup, income, occupations, and commute times. In addition, it provides geographic information including roads, addresses, congressional districts, and boundaries for cities, counties, subdivisions, and school and voting districts. The Social Security Administration provides information such as the Death Master File, which includes consumers’ names, SSNs, and dates of death. The U.S. Postal Service provides information such as address standardization and change of address information. Other federal and international agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Secret Service, and European Union, provide information related to terrorist watch lists or most wanted lists. In addition, federal and international agencies provide lists of individuals who are ineligible to receive government contracts or other benefits.  Also, federal courts provide information on bankruptcies.”

“Professional licenses (e.g., licenses for pilots, doctors, lawyers, architects); Recreational licenses (e.g., hunting and fishing licenses); Real property and assessor records (Taxes; Assessed Value; Liens; Deeds; Mortgages; Mortgage Releases; Pre-foreclosures; Identifying information about the owner; Information about the property (e.g., square footage, number of bathrooms and bedrooms, and whether the property has a pool)); Voter registration information (e.g., name, address, date of birth, and party affiliation); Motor vehicle and driving records; Court records (Criminal records; Civil actions and judgments; Birth, marriage, divorce, and death records).”

Of course, some state and federal laws restrict the use of certain kinds of government-provided data, including 22 states that “prohibit the use of voter registration records for commercial or non-election-related purposes” (including California, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming).

Also, the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) and related state laws restrict access to data from state motor vehicle departments. “The DPPA prohibits the disclosure of motor vehicle and driving record information, except for limited purposes such as law enforcement, insurance, and identity verification or fraud detection. It allows the unrestricted use of such information with the express consent of the individual, which at least one state requests in its driver’s license application.”

Many states prohibit the disclosure of motor vehicle records, “except for limited purposes such as identity verification or fraud prevention” (e.g., Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Colorado, Arizona, and Alaska). Other states prohibit access to this information in virtually all circumstances (e.g., Montana, Washington, and Delaware).

“For example, the data brokers obtain detailed, transaction-specific data about purchases from retailers and catalog companies. Such information can include the types of purchases (e.g., high-end shoes, natural food, toothpaste, items related to disabilities or orthopedic conditions), the dollar amount of the purchase, the date of the purchase, and the type of payment used. Several of the data brokers also obtain information from magazine publishers about the types of subscriptions sold. Three data brokers obtain customer lists from registration websites, which are sites where consumers register or log in to obtain services, such as retail, news, and travel sites. Such lists can include a consumer’s name, along with a postal or email address. A few of the data brokers obtain aggregated transaction data from financial services companies. The types of data that the data brokers obtain from these sources include more sensitive information (e.g., certain health-related purchases 41 ) and less sensitive information (e.g., certain clothing purchases).”

“Some of the data brokers report that they obtain data directly from their merchant and financial service company clients, either to create or enhance products or services for those particular clients or to use in other products in aggregated, de-identified form, as explained further below. Other data, such as some data from registration websites, comes from non-client consumer-facing companies pursuant to specific contractual arrangements. At least one of the nine data brokers obtains consumers’ web browsing activities from online advertising networks.”