A privacy advocate on Wednesday told Congress that she had discovered that it was common practice for data brokers to sell the names of rape victims and HIV patients for about 7.9 cents each.
Speaking to members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, World Privacy Forum Executive Director Pam Dixon described herself as a "moderate" when it came to data brokers, but shocking research convinced her that the industry was in need of regulation.
"The data broker industry as it is today, does not have constraints and it does not have shame," she explained. "It will sell any information about any person regardless of sensitivity for 7.9 cents a name, which is the price of a list of rape sufferers which was recently sold."
"Lists of rape sufferers, victims of domestic violence, police officers' home addresses, people who suffer from genetic illnesses," Dixon continued. "Complete with names, home addresses, ethnicity, gender and many other factors. This is what's being sold and circulated today."
According to Dixon, the industry was now using "pseudo-scores" for credit decisions that were based on non-financial factors, allowing companies to circumvent the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) wondered if lists were being used to discriminated against entire classes of people.
"I was stunned in doing my research when I found lists of people who were rape sufferers, people who were genetic disease suffers, people who were victims of domestic violence," Dixon admitted. "What is happening is through survey instruments that are operated online and through other methods that are typically consumer generated, people will volunteer this information to websites thinking they are getting help from a website."
"And they have no idea this information is going to be attached to, not just a cookie, but their name, their home address, their phone number."
Committee chairman John "Jay" Rockefeller (D-WV) closed the hearing by saying he was "revolted" by Dixon's revelations.
"I think it's our job as government to... bring into sunlight what is going on," he said. "I think its serious, and I think it's a dark underside of American life, in which people make a lot of money and cause people to suffer even more."
Watch this video from C-SPAN, broadcast Dec. 18, 2013.