When people worry about their data privacy, they usually focus on the Big Five tech companies: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. Legislators have brought Facebook’s CEO to the capitol to testify about the ways the company uses personal data. The FTC has sued Google for violating laws meant to protect children’s privacy. Each of the tech companies is followed by a bevy of reporters eager to investigate how it uses technology to surveil us. But when Congress got close to passing data privacy legislation, it wasn’t the Big Five that led the most urgent effort to prevent the law from passing, it was a company called RELX.
You might not be familiar with RELX, but it knows all about you. Reed Elsevier LexisNexis (RELX) is a Frankensteinian amalgam of publishers and data brokers, stitched together into a single information giant. There is one other company that compares to RELX—Thomson Reuters, which is also an amalgamation of hundreds of smaller publishers and data services. Together, the two companies have amassed thousands of academic publications and business profiles, millions of data dossiers containing our personal information, and the entire corpus of US law. These companies are a culmination of the kind of information market consolidation that’s happening across media industries, from music and newspapers to book publishing. However, RELX and Thomson Reuters are uniquely creepy as media companies that don’t just publish content but also sell our personal data.
Despite being a billion-dollar data and information business—just one of RELX’s brands, alone, has profit margins that rival Apple, Google, and Amazon’s—RELX doesn’t get the same level of public scrutiny that those other companies do. It’s likely easier for most of us to ignore RELX and its industry counterparts than it is to ignore the social media and online shopping platforms that we use every day. We visit the Big Five companies’ platforms whenever we want to read the news, catch up with friends, shop, or look something up. Most of us don’t have such an intimate user relationship with RELX, even if we do legal research on Lexis, read Elsevier journals, or use LexisNexis personal data services at work. Even if you don’t feel like you have close, personal ties to RELX, one of the company’s dossiers probably has your name on it—and that information may be used to make decisions about your everyday life.
On one end of the informational spectrum, companies like RELX exploit a lack of data privacy laws to make millions of dollars building data products to sell to cops, your employer, your landlords, your insurance companies, and all sorts of other institutions and overlords. These companies and institutions use RELX’s “risk” products to make decisions about whether you should get hired for a job, have custody of your children, have access to certain types of medication, and even whether you will be detained or arrested. RELX’s LexisNexis products have helped the government spy on protesters’ social media accounts and surveil immigrants. Police have abused LexisNexis systems to spy on exes and even to blackmail women using the personal information the company’s policing products provide. Using RELX products for data surveillance is problematic because the company funnels a deluge of unfiltered, unvetted data through biased data-processing algorithms. The combination of bad data and bad algorithms leads to government systems that bake historically racist, xenophobic policing practices and outcomes into a Minority Report-like digital policing dystopia.
The companies’ error-riddled data has prevented people from accessing their own bank accounts and getting insurance, and from being able to rent homes. The mistakes in RELX’s data make it all the more worrisome. RELX is growing its list of data analytics products, and is even developing technology that makes predictions about your health based on your private medical records, assessing your health risks for insurers and your doctors. Imagine what could happen to your health care access if you were wrongly tagged as at risk for opioid abuse or as having a certain chronic illness.
The companies can “double-dip” with their data assets, selling raw data and also selling structured information made from that raw data. For instance, RELX’s Elsevier sells academic journal articles, and it also creates research “metrics” products with data gathered by tracking the activities and associations of its authors, and also by surveilling who is accessing articles and what they’re doing with them. These metrics products predict which researchers, and which research projects, will have the most “impact.” Such rankings help grant funders divvy out money and institutions decide which hires will make them appear the most prestigious. Academic metrics take scientific decisions out of the hands of scientists whose expertise should lead scientific decisionmaking. They also turn universities and grant funders into rich data sources for the analytics companies.