Scholarship sites sharing personal info, including sexual orientation, with partner companies

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Everyone knows that if you put your personal information online these days, sooner or later it will end up being sold. But some companies marketing to the college-bound are looking for funds in a unique place: They’re cleaning out the closet.

Forbes reports that sites like Scholarships.com present a quid pro quo deal to those looking to raise money for their education: The site will steer them toward scholarship opportunities tailored to their profile, provided kids don’t mind their information be funneled to advertisers. This can even include information about their sexual orientation.

Using Scholarships.com means consenting to a plain-English agreement on the first page: “Scholarships.com may make the information I supply available to its marketing partners.” This is done through parent company American Student Marketing (ASM). “The rich demographic consumer information you are renting is derived directly from Scholarships.com,” the ASM site tells potential clients. 

“You may search for students and parents by home and email address, academic and artistic interests, disabilities, ethnicities, religious affiliations, gender, geographic information and much more,” ASM goes on to say. This means, in effect, that the company is selling a list of gay high school students—but you have to pick it out from dozens of other, overlapping lists that come bundled with it.

“I want to clarify: There’s dozens of ways to filter data. All we’re doing is narrowing things down for people,” Kevin Ladd, a spokesperson for Scholarships.com, told 429Magazine. 

“The only way we can figure out what you qualify for is to ask things like your ethnicity, your religion and, yeah, what your orientation is. If there weren’t so many scholarships specifically for the LGBT community we wouldn’t ask, but that’s valuable data for scholarship sponsors as well as advertisers,” Ladd says, citing the hundreds of LGBT-specific grants listed on Human Rights Campaign’s site.

Ladd also says he understands that such disclosures make some people nervous. “But it’s voluntary, and anytime they want their profile removed, it gets removed. I get why it’s sensitive and why there might be concern about the potential for discrimination.” He adds that ASM often acts as a middleman, distributing emails themselves so that advertisers never get direct access to the student’s contact information.

Chris Calabrese, legal counsel for the ACLU, told 429Magazine that the issue of transparency can be trickier than it appears at first glance. “People know they’re going to be marketed to, but they don’t realize that their name and orientation can be sold to anyone. The same companies doing marketing are also very often doing background checks, for example. And these databases can be shared; information you put in a system like that will be accessible years later and you will have no idea by who or why.”

Even if applicants withhold information like sexual orientation, advertisers can continue tracking them via the data they do have and extrapolate such information from future online activity, Calabrese says. “I would encourage students not to disclose anything they think could be used against them by anyone. Whatever they disclose will be linked to them forever, and they should understand that.”

Writing in the Washington Post this year, Federal Trade Commissioner Julie Brill warned that data doesn’t just shape what advertisements we receive but “may also determine what rates we pay, even what jobs we get.” In 2006, for example, New York resident Victor Guevares sued data broker Acxiom, complaining that the information they sold about him (a potentially misleading tip about a disorderly conduct charge a decade prior) cost him a lucrative job offer. 

“Acxiom unlawfully reported non-criminal conviction information about Guevares,” reads the complaint. “Tyco denied him employment based upon the mistaken belief that Guevares had been convicted.” Acxiom faced a class-action suit the same year over allegedly faulty database security that allowed an outside party to ransack information on thousands of people. The case was dismissed for lack of standing.

Speaking for Scholarships.com, Ladd acknowledged that it was “fair to assert” that some site users don’t realize the potential ramifications of disclosing their information, but he says, “We think the media does a pretty good job of educating the public about those things.” He adds: “No one has offered a practical alternative to the way things are done now. If people are very concerned they can always search for scholarships independently, the old-fashioned way.” He recommended HRC’s site for LGBT applicants. 

If more junk-mail starts coming in after we browsed the scholarships site, we’ll let you know.

429Magazine

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