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How Data is Collected and Used: Hoarder, Handler, Bricoleur, Spy

Data collection is a known inevitability when it comes to using the internet. While data tracking is common knowledge, how the data is collected and used is not widely known or understood.

Research by Jasmine McNealy, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications associate professor and associate director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, investigates and explicates the ways in which information distribution organizations play a role in the communication of information to news-seeking audiences.

McNealy defined four major categories of information distribution organizations in use: hoarder, handler, bricoleur and spy. An understanding of these categories can shape how policymakers regulate data collection and could affect social and ethical implications of data use and storage as well. These groupings are more of an ecosystem of behaviors rather than a strict classification system.

Hoarders are organizations, such as Facebook and Experian, that collect vast amounts of information, which is then licensed to other organizations. They use the data to influence consumers to vote for particular candidates, read news articles, make purchases and other activities. Data collection is a common practice for these businesses, despite privacy advocates arguing that more regulation on data collection is needed.

Handlers, such as search engines Google and Bing, work to facilitate the transfer of information in some way, with the goal of making information accessible to others for their use. Hoarding is a passive way of storing key words and other search parameters, as well as using algorithms to rank search results for relevance to the searcher without changing or manipulating the information.

Bricoleurs, which include companies such as Disney, advertisers and news organizations, are involved in content creation from various sources. For example, reporters gather information from several sources, such as public records, interviews, and eye-witness accounts, and then provide the public with a description of such issues and events.

The Spy surreptitiously collects information to use for commercial or other purposes. Even if the consumer agrees to this data collection, they may not fully understand how the information will be used. One example is the ride-share company Uber, which continued to track consumers even after they were no longer using the service. Snapchat is another example, where the app promised that information would disappear after a set time, though the information was, in fact, still in existence and accessible if one knew how to access it.

Understanding the different ways that data is collected and used is helpful for policymakers, individuals, and businesses in determining ways to responsibly use and manage the data.

Future research into whether organizations in specific industries are more likely to fit into specific categories will be useful. A more in-depth analysis of the legal and ethical privileges and responsibilities of the different types of data and how it is collected would advance this discussion as well.

The original research paper, “Hoarder, Handler, Bricoleur, Spy: An Explication of Information Distribution Organisations” appeared in the Journal of International and Comparative Law, November 3, 2021.

 This summary was written by Marie Morganelli, Ph.D.

Posted: April 29, 2022
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