Experian Is Tracking the People Most Likely to Get Screwed Over by Coronavirus

Illustration for article titled Experian Is Tracking the People Most Likely to Get Screwed Over by Coronavirus
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We don’t need to tell you that things are skewing shitty right now. Thanks to the current pandemic, Americans are losing long-loved relatives, losing their jobs, and losing the freedom to do most things outside their four walls. Understandably, plenty of folks are undeniably more bummed than they’ve been in recent memory.

Another bummer? It turns out that the folks being hit the hardest are being profiled because of it. Last week, Experian announced it would be combing through the 300 million consumers in its database, pulling out profiles of people who are likely to be impacted by the pandemic, and then offering those audiences to “essential organizations,” like healthcare providers, federal agencies, and NGO’s, all free of charge. Here’s how Experian explained it:

In an effort to help essential organizations, such as government agencies, healthcare providers and non-governmental organizations, provide resources to those most in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, Experian has created At-Risk Audiences, which leverage its data assets to identify groups of individuals that are most likely to be impacted.

These new privacy-compliant segments, offered free of charge, are designed to help these organizations find and communicate with at-risk populations, enabling them to deliver essential services as quickly as possible.


First, it’s worth mentioning what these “data assets” are. While most of us probably think of Experian as one of the major credit reporting agencies, the company is also a data brokering giant that makes millions annually off of the practice of slicing its consumer base into targetable segments, and then pitching off those segments to the public and private sector alike.

And because Experian’s consumer database boasts a good 95 percent of the U.S. population (by the company’s own account), there are a ton of ways that base can be targeted. In the 30-plus page guide to Experian’s database, it’s clear that almost nothing is off-limits: Experian’s partners can target suburban moms, doggie dads, dieters, “mild Republicans,” and just about any other niche you can imagine. And while the exact recipe the company uses to construct these audiences is a closely guarded secret, Experian’s privacy policies offer a few hints. Aside from other, third-party data brokers, the company siphons off intel from:

  • Local tax assessor and recorded deed files
  • Consumer surveys
  • Telephone directories
  • Publications, subscriptions and published directories
  • Summarized U.S. Census information
  • Online and mobile sites, apps, and advertisements

Though Experian declined Gizmodo’s request to comment on how it determines a person is “at risk” of getting screwed by the pandemic, the company has ample resources to gauge who has the most to lose in the current hell we call reality. When people are defaulting on their mortgages, or filing for unemployment and any sort of aid, all of that intel is funneled through Experian’s pipes, as is every tissue purchase you make at a pharmacy, and every medical bill that you pay. Having insights into these sorts of patterns could help federal agencies keep tabs on the pandemic’s economic impact on different groups, but Experian’s initial release leaves this doorway to data wide open to it being used for any and all “essential” services.

How people define “essential” varies state-by-state, but at the very least, it can include more than a few of commercial enterprises that will likely turn the pandemic’s hardest-hit into the ones that can generate massive profit. And while the idea of stock gains built on human suffering is undoubtedly icky, the truth is that this isn’t merelycoronavirus capitalism” as some reports have dubbed it. It’s the same old-fashioned capitalism that’s long been at the core of our country—now, we’re just seeing it for what it really is.

I cover the business of data for Gizmodo. Send your worst tips to swodinsky@gizmodo.com.

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To me, the overreach into personal privacy during this pandemic response resembles the response to 9/11.

The genie has been out of the bottle and its power is only growing.