Special Report: Who's Selling Your Personal Information?

By: Tony Tagliavia
By: Tony Tagliavia

Your name, address, birth year, and even the make and model of your car are all for sale. You may be surprised by who's doing the selling.

It's one of the fundamental rights of democracy.

But if you're registered to vote here in Michigan, your name, address and year of birth are for sale by the government.

"I'd rather not have that information public," one woman told us.

But, it is public.

"We're government. We do it at taxpayer expense so information is available to the public," said Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for the Michigan Secretary of State.

That means anyone can buy a list of all the registered voters in the state. The lists are most often bought by polling companies, political groups and candidates running for office to use for mailings.

"Well that I wouldn't have a problem with. I mean, sometimes those things are a good way to get information about a candidate," another Michigan resident told us.

Chesney says it's also needed in case a political candidate challenges election results.

But those names, addresses and birth years are also open to any commercial or marketing firm.

"There are some companies that use it for a direct mail piece they have within a community," Chesney said.

So far this year, more than twenty companies have purchased voter information from the state.

Even more groups bought lists from the various counties around the state.

"It's going too far. We're losing our rights. To be honest with you, I don't like it," a Lansing man told us.

John Chamberlin doesn't like it either. He's the state president of the government watchdog Common Cause.

"Given the massive popularity of the do-not-call lists, my guess is that on the whole that people are getting too much contact they didn't initiate," Chamberlin said.

In fact, registering to vote isn't the only time the government gathers information about you that it sells.

If you're car is registered in Michigan, your name and address as well as the make and model of your car can be bought.

"We have a bulk list purchaser program, which means that some companies that assist auto dealers, they will work with us, obtain lists."

The state makes more than $100,000 every time someone buys the whole list of driver registrations or driver's licenses.

But there are restrictions just who can get the information and how they can use it, according to the spokeswoman for the Secretary of State.

"There are strict guidelines. If they violate that agreement they can lose their right to obtain the information," Chesney said.

A 17-page document details what you can and can't do with the information. The rules say marketing is not a legitimate purpose for a buyer. But the information can be used for automakers to improve their product or, for recall information.

"Typically the company we buy our cars from they would notify us of any recall information. So I don't feel my address and name should be out there in the public," a Michigan woman told us.

Chamberlin says having citizens' names "out there" should be a choice. Right now, voter forms don't indicate that some of what you write becomes part of the public record.

"It seems to me if governments are supplying names to people I ought to be aware of it. And they in a sense should have my permission," Chamberlin said.

He says selling your information, without your permission, is a position the government shouldn't be in.

The spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's office says the kind of information for sale isn't enough to trigger identity theft.

But the Michigan chairman of "Common Cause" says it could be contributing to the problem.

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