A recent study found that some data brokers are selling highly sensitive data relating to consumers’ mental health conditions on the open market with minimal vetting of their customers and few controls on how these purchasers use the data. The study, conducted by a researcher at Duke University’s Technology Policy Lab, found that 11 out of 37 data brokerage firms contacted by a potential purchaser of the data were willing to sell the requested mental health data with little to no knowledge of the potential use of that data. The study also found that ten brokers advertised sensitive mental health data for sale, including data on consumers with depression, insomnia, anxiety, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. The brokers additionally sold data targeted by ethnicity, age, gender, zip code, religion, children in the home, marital status, net worth, credit score, date of birth, and single-parent status.
One of the significant concerns addressed in this study was the lack of clarity on whether the data is de-identified or aggregated; unfortunately, many data brokers imply that they can provide identifiable data even related to this sensitive subject. The pricing for mental health information varied, with some data brokers charging by the record, while others offered subscriptions.
Some brokers asked their potential customers about the purpose of the purchase and the intended uses for the data. However, after receiving the requested information, those brokers did not appear to have additional controls for data or customer management thereafter. Through the use of emails and telephone calls requesting information from these brokers, there was no indication by the brokers that they had conducted separate background checks to confirm the purchaser’s credentials. This study corroborates the findings of researchers at the Mozilla Foundation, which also raised red flags around mental health mobile app privacy policies . Data brokering is in its infancy as an industry, and studies like these highlight the growing need for effective regulation and consumer protection.