The Guardian • Issue #2027

Data harvesters

  • by Anna Pha
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2027

Photo: Marco Verch Professional Photographer – (CC BY 2.0)

The Privacy Act makes it unlawful for many companies in Australia to buy or exchange consumers’ personal data for profiling or targeting purposes. It applies to most organisations that operate businesses with an annual revenue of more than A$3 million, and smaller data businesses.

It’s only legal for an organisation to collect personal information from a third party if it would be unreasonable or impracticable to collect that information from the individual.

The stated aim is to protect individuals’ privacy, to avoid the harvesting and on-selling of people’s personal information. But the legislation is not enforced, and the current review of the Privacy Act could see it legalised if major corporations get their way.

Corporations have privacy policies. So that makes you feel safe. Just tick a box on-line or hard copy to accept their privacy policy and all is well. But all is not well. There is a massive data harvesting industry including data brokers worth billions of dollars.


Do you know how Optus uses customer data? Do you know what other sources Optus obtains data on customers from (e.g. credit agencies)?

Optus’ privacy policy runs into many pages. How many Optus users have read it before agreeing? The following are a few quotes from how it uses the information it collects on customers:

“Deriving insights about you and who you interact with to identify market segments, market products and services, or carry out market research.

“Supplementing, matching and analysing information about you with information from third party sources (e.g. from Facebook or Google) to learn more about your preferences and interests and to create aggregated market segments.”

The information collected includes:

  • “Information about your interests, preferences, opinions or comments you have made to us.
  • “Other information about your identity, such as when your image is recorded on a surveillance camera when you visit one of our stores or offices.”
  • Optus also collects information from other sources: “Our business partners, such as our franchisees or distributors like Coles or Harvey Norman”

The reasons Ebay collects data on users include:

“… to provide you with personalised advertising and marketing communications, and to detect, prevent, mitigate and investigate fraudulent or illegal activity. We also share your information with third parties, including service providers acting on our behalf, for these purposes …

“Some recipients of your personal data are located outside your country or have offices in countries where data protection laws may provide a different level of protection than the laws in your country. When transferring personal data to such recipients, we provide appropriate safeguards.”

What are “appropriate safeguards”?


Data brokers are companies that collect information from different sources about you. This information can be extensive – financial (e.g. supplied to a real estate agent or credit agency), your date of birth, address, occupation, children, purchases, subscriptions, websites you visit, interests, political outlook, etc.

They purchase data from corporations you deal with and also use sophisticated, automated scraping tools to quickly collect information from public profiles including social media.

They package and on-sell this data to tech, retail, and other companies who use it to run targeted advertising, and profiling of individuals, for political and other purposes.

Data has become an extremely valuable commodity which is sold for profit, without the knowledge of those impacted.

It increases the vulnerability of your personal data to hacking, identity theft and other criminal behaviour.


ACXIOM, for example, is a US company which markets data globally, providing “accurate targeting and more predictive modelling.” This includes age, gender ethnicity, education, occupation, age, children, home purchase, community involvement, causes, gaming, products bought, method of payment, income ranges, net worth, economic stability, etc.

The company offers its customers privacy and describes itself as a “Leading Data Privacy Experts in Marketing and Advertising” offering “Global Data Ethics & Privacy Program.”!

It is highly profitable with revenue of US$617.0 million (AU$954m) in 2021. Data broker, Experian Australia, in its submission to the Privacy Act review, seeks to weaken existing privacy provisions.

It unashamedly asserts:

“The value that data companies such as Experian offer businesses and the economy is predicated on holding large amounts of data. We gather and combine data from numerous sources for use by our clients, large and small, none of whom would have the appetite or ability to collect it themselves.”

Data collection certainly benefits data brokers. The US parent made an operating profit of US$1.4 billion (AU$2.2b) in 2022.

It also creates pots of gold for hackers.

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