A woman in Connecticut suddenly began getting mail advertisements for cremation services soon after she completed chemotherapy, according to a startling anecdote in a new report by the state’s attorney general’s office. According to the report, she was added to a marketing list for the cremation company by a data broker.
Arielle Garcia, former chief privacy officer at the marketing firm UM Worldwide, first caught the cremation anecdote in a column for the blog AdExchanger, where she wrote “We can guess how the marketing logic flowed … ‘Inference: Terminal Illness?’ ‘Interest: Likely Purchase – Burial/Cremation.’”
We don’t know specifically what happened in this Connecticut case, whether it was extrapolated from location data, or how a data broker decided to put her on this specific list. The FTC has previously noted that data brokers often are able to get access to medical records or other medical information. But laws like the Connecticut Data Privacy Act, which give consumers the right to “delete personal data provided by, or obtained about, the consumer” and allows the state attorney general to investigate and publicize complaints about data brokers, is showing just how unsettling some of this targeting can be.
After the woman filed a complaint under the state’s new data privacy law, the attorney general’s office investigated why this happened, and found that a “data broker identified the individual for the marketing list” for the cremation services company. “This matter has brought to light the close interplay between data brokers and data analytics firms in the digital marketing landscape.”
The woman and the companies involved are not identified in the report, but it states that the state office of the attorney general “issued a cure notice” to the cremation services company, which suggests that it found some level of wrongdoing. I’ve requested a redacted version of the complaint and the investigation both through the attorney general’s press office and through a public records request.
Over the years, our reporting has shown how granular and insidious data brokers can be, and Joseph’s reporting in particular has highlighted how data is harvested and sold from highly sensitive sources all the time. His reporting has shown, for example, that cell phone location data could be bought for abortion clinics; other research has shown that it can be trivially easy to de-anonymize this type of data (if it is even anonymized in the first place). Last month, the FTC finally stopped a single data broker, called X-mode, from selling sensitive location data.
The Connecticut attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.