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You'll Be Shocked at What 'Surveillance Valley' Knows About You

The most intimate details about a person’s life, packaged and sold over and over again to anyone willing to pay.

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As Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sergeant Yves Leblanc told the New York Times: “Only one kind of customer wants to buy lists of seniors interested in lotteries and sweepstakes: criminals. If someone advertises a list by saying it contains gullible or elderly people, it’s like putting out a sign saying ‘Thieves welcome here.’”

So what is InfoUSA, exactly? What kind of company would create and sell lists customized for use by scammers and cons?

As it turns out, InfoUSA is not some fringe or shady outfit, but a hugely profitable politically connected company. InfoUSA was started by Vin Gupta in the 1970s as a basement operation hawking detailed lists of RV and mobile home dealers. The company quickly expanded into other areas and began providing business intel  services to thousands of businesses. By 2000, the company raised more than $30 million in venture capital funding from major Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

By then, InfoUSA boasted of having information on 230 million consumers. A few years later, InfoUSA counted the biggest Valley companies as its clients, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL. It got involved not only in raw data and dossiers, but moved into payroll and financial, conducted polling and opinion research, partnered with CNN, vetted employees and provided customized services for law enforcement and all sorts of federal and government agencies: processing government payments, helping states locate tax cheats and even administrating President Bill Clinton “Welfare to Work” program. Which is not surprising, as Vin Gupta is a major and  close political supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

In 2008, Gupta was sued by InfoUSA shareholders for inappropriately using corporate funds. Shareholders accused of Gupta of illegally funneling corporate money to fund an extravagant lifestyle and curry political favor. According to the Associated Press, the lawsuit questioned why Gupta used private corporate jets to fly the Clintons on personal and campaign trips, and why Gupta awarded Bill Clinton a $3.3 million consulting gig.

As a result of the scandal, InfoUSA was threatened with delisting from Nasdaq, Gupta was forced out and the company was snapped up for half a billion dollars by CCMP Capital Advisors, a major private equity firm spun off from JP Morgan in 2006. Today, InfoUSA continues to do business under the name Infogroup, and has nearly 4,000 employees working in nine countries.

As big as Infogroup is, there are dozens of other for-profit intelligence businesses that are even bigger: massive multi-national intel conglomerates with revenues in the billions of dollars. Some of them, like Lexis-Nexis and Experian, are well known, but mostly these are outfits that few Americans have heard of, with names like Epsilon, Altegrity and Acxiom.

These for-profit intel behemoths are involved in everything from debt collection to credit reports to consumer tracking to healthcare analysis, and provide all manner of tailored services to government and law enforcement around the world. For instance, Acxiom has done business with most major corporations, and boasts of  intel on “500 million active consumers worldwide, with about 1,500 data points per person. That includes a majority of adults in the United States,” according to the  New York Times.

This data is analyzed and sliced in increasingly sophisticated and intrusive ways to profile and predict behavior. Merchants are using it customize shopping experience— Target  launched a program to figure out if a woman shopper was pregnant and when the baby would be born, “even if she didn’t want us to know.” Life insurance companies are experimenting with predictive consumer intel to estimate life expectancy and determine eligibility for life insurance policies. Meanwhile, health insurance companies are raking over this data in order to deny and challenge the medical claims of their policyholders.

 
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