We now know the government has our phone data. But corporations have information on far more than just who we're calling. Auto insurers, for one, can buy a personal file whose details would not look out of place in an FBI dossier.
Personal data is the prized secret sauce for both car insurance companies, who use it to offer attractive rates to low-risk drivers, and to data brokers, who sell the information to the insurers.
Once, much of this data was unavailable at all, or an investigator had to physically examine records.
Or they took your word for it.
Today an insurance company can buy the information it needs from third-party data brokers for a fraction of the cost of paying an unmerited claim. Here are a dozen examples.
1. How many miles you drive
Data-industry research estimates that insurance companies lose about $15 billion a year through "premium leakage," missed opportunities to charge customers more for the risk they pose. The single biggest loss, estimated at $3 billion in 2010? Underestimating the number of miles people drive.
Data brokers like Verisk Analytics, however, can estimate the mileage on all vehicles in a household. How? That's proprietary. The company says:
"The model is based on dozens of demographic and geographic factors and has been validated with millions of actual customer interviews and confirmations."
A lot of it may be algorithmic guesswork, but some data may come from your car's brushes with bureaucracy -- a warranty repair or your annual smog check -- where your mileage is recorded.
2. Whether you're married
Statistically, married people are less likely to file an accident claim than singles, so insurance companies are financially motivated to care about your personal living arrangement.
Again, data brokers won't disclose specifics. But here's a list, from LexisNexis, of sources it uses in general for its information gathering:
"LexisNexis maintains public records obtained from federal, state, and local sources, including civil and criminal courts, bankruptcy courts, public assessor's offices, state property and tax offices, secretary of state offices, and various licensing agencies. This includes items such as real estate transaction and ownership data, lien, judgment, and bankruptcy records, professional license information, and historical addresses on file."
Car insurance discounts for multiple vehicles and for marriage itself can be substantial, so most drivers tell their insurance companies themselves.
3. Whether you're a suspected terrorist or drug dealer
You can pin this one on the federal government, which requires that insurance companies check customers' names against a list published by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
The aim is to prevent companies from doing business with people suspected of terrorism, international drug trafficking, or activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Companies, or their officers, that don't comply can be penalized by up to $1 million in fines and 12 years in prison.
4. Your credit history
Although nobody, including insurers, agrees on the reason, drivers with low credit scores appear more likely to file a claim. So to cover expected payouts, insurance companies set higher rates for drivers with low credit scores.
Only Massachusetts, Hawaii and California have heeded criticism that credit scoring unfairly penalizes low-income drivers and minorities, who tend to have lower scores. Those states have banned the practice.
Most states, however, allow it. And there, 95 percent of insurance companies consider credit, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Companies use what they call an "insurance score," which considers credit and debt but supposedly not income and job history.
Data brokers access information from credit bureaus and other sources to compile a score for every driver.
5. If any teenagers are driving
One look at the high cost of insuring a teen driver and it's no wonder that parents would opt not to include them on the policy.
Insurance companies, though, aren't about to take the risk that comes should that high schooler borrow the family car. Data brokers mine driver's license and other public records to ferret out who's living in the house, and they'll flag any between 15 and 25 years of age.
How exactly, again, is considered a trade secret.
"Auto insurers and their vendors generally don't want to get into too much detail over how they assess prospective or current policyholders because it is proprietary information," said Michael Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group.
6. Who else lives in the household
Some states don't require that drivers list everyone who lives in the household. But insurance companies do check, assuming that it's likely others may use the car. Even if that driver isn't insured, the company may still have to cover the car.
In the same way data brokers ferret out teen drivers, they also cross-check available records for what they call "hidden" or "undisclosed" drivers -- a relative or friend who might be occupying the spare bedroom but isn't listed as a rated driver on the policy.
Your options: Pay any additional premium (a really careful occasional driver might actually improve your rates), show your insurer that the guest has insurance of his or her own, or, in a worst-case scenario, exclude the driver from your policy.
7. If you've filed an insurance claim
Given that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, nearly all insurance companies - and certainly all the big ones - pool their records of insurance claims that have been filed.
C.L.U.E. (Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange), run by LexisNexis, has a 99.6 percent participation rate among insurers, the data broker says.
You may be able to shop for cheaper insurance and switch providers, but you can't erase your tracks.
C.L.U.E., and A Plus, operated by Verisk, will spit out claims information going as far back as seven years. It includes information about your past policies, vehicles and any accidents, including other drivers involved and any payouts.
8. Your history of traffic tickets
"Unfortunately," data broker Verisk writes in its advertising to insurance companies, "your potential clients aren't always straightforward about their driving histories."
It's no wonder, given that a couple of major traffic violations can double a driver's rates, or worse.
No problem for insurers, though. They simply submit the driver's name, address and license number. The data company, whose programs routinely pull from motor vehicle records in all 50 states and in Canada or Puerto Rico if need be, will return a history of tickets and accidents.
Your insurance company's "look-back period" determines how much of the data it uses.
9. Your car's accident history
When it comes to all this personal data, insurance companies aren't routinely looking into their policyholders. To do so would cost too much.
New applications or suspicious claims do trigger reports, though. And these reports include those that check a vehicle's history.
Claims data show if a car has sustained damage in a prior accident. Motor vehicle records reveal any branded titles, those used to identify a salvaged or flood-damaged vehicle.
Both scenarios could add to repair costs - essentially for pre-existing damage - or increase risk of an accident.
10. When, if ever, you let your coverage lapse
Insurance companies are suspicious of drivers who have been uninsured in the past (even if they didn't have a car at the time). To them, it correlates with higher risk because they have no reassuring record of claims-free, incident-free driving history.
Those central databases that contain claims information also turn up auto insurance policy information, including exact coverage, deductible and discounts. A lapse in your coverage history is never a good thing.
Insurance companies also share current data, increasingly supplying states with real-time policy information to help them enforce mandatory liability insurance laws when you register the car or are pulled over by police.
11. If you use your car for business
Again, data brokers don't disclose exactly where they get all their information or how they put together a composite of a driver's behavior.
By cross-checking public records with vehicle and registration information, however, they say they can help determine whether a vehicle is being used for weekend cruising or for delivering auto parts.
Insurance companies assess risk based on how often and for what purpose the car or truck is being used. "Pleasure," as you might have guessed, costs a lot less than "business."
12. What you tell your friends online
To reiterate: Insurers aren't going through all your tweets. Who would have the time and brain cells to spare?
But if you file a large or suspicious claim, odds are excellent these days that an insurance company investigation will include a run-through of what you've been telling people online.
Trace America, for example, says it will "match your claimant to content such as articles, résumés, gossip about their golf game, details about the new business they started while 'off work' and much much more. We often find pictures and video clips, all of which can be preserved in a .PDF file before it can be deleted. And the claimant will never know anyone was there."
If you're surprised by the wealth of data insurers collect, you're not alone.
"Most of us are unaware of the fact that this is happening behind our backs," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Even for the privacy experts who are supposedly experts on this, so much of this is furtive. In many situations there's not a lot of knowledge about this."
Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, consumers have a right to see any information that has been uncovered about them that has had an adverse impact in any of these five areas: employment, medical, housing, lending, and, yes, insurance.
Is your insurance company telling you which factors negatively affected your rates? For more information about what and how to ask, see this fact sheet from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse at https://www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs6b-SpecReports.htm.