Free software blocks collection of personal information

Lists offer Houstonian's personal information for sale

By Jace Larson - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - A Local 2 Investigation has found companies whom you would expect to safeguard your personal information selling Houstonians' information to anyone willing to pay.

Lists with Texans' first names, last names, addresses, emails and phone numbers are offered for sale online by companies such as Exact Data. The companies offer lists of names of people who it claims are interested in topics such as erectile dysfunction, diabetes, Christian dating and health issues.

Local 2 Investigates purchased a list of Houston residents interested in dieting. Arlene Nowak's name appeared on the list along with her address, phone number and email address.

"I'm not too happy I appeared on this," Nowak told Local 2 investigative reporter Jace Larson. "I was shocked."

Nowak has interests in health foods and recipes, but says she does not have any interest in dieting.

"I was not aware there is a site or a list out there that I didn't sign up to be on," she said.

Computer expert Chris Bronk, who worked on IT Policy at Rice University's Baker Institute, knows having someone else making money off your personal information won't sit well with people.

"It's creepy. It bothers people," Bronk said. "Really what you've called out is the tip of the iceberg. There is definitely a feeling of invasion of privacy."

Bronk said there are many companies that track what sites you click on and combine that with personal information you enter when doing business over the Internet. Companies put it all together and then sell the lists.

"Even the banks you may work with for the credit card transactions, they will sell the information because its of value," Bronk said.

Exact Data's website details how it sends emails to people and then tracks what they click on.

According to the company's website, "Exact Data deploys email to portions of its database daily with client offers... When the email recipient opens or clicks on the email received, the time, date, and category/ 'behavior' of the click are recorded real time back to the national database. This is how we are able to make available specific 'behaviors.'"

"In the United States, it is all legal to do this," Bronk said. "We have very weak personal privacy protections."

Software claims to block snooping companies

Free software called Disconnect shows who is watching your online moves in a visual way. When you visit a website, it appears in the center with spokes coming out of it signifying each company watching you or what you are searching online.

The disconnect software has a setting that the maker said also lets you block companies from watching your moves online.

The software is available here.

Have a story idea for investigative reporter Jace Larson? Email him or send him a message on Facebook.



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