Basically, there are three major participants in the information industry — government entities (federal, state, local), direct marketers, and reference services. Generally each of them gathers and distributes personally identifiable information. The information may be gathered for one purpose, and sold for another.
- Public records held by government entities contain personally identifiable information such as name, address, and social security number. Government records are generally publicly available, and often represent significant sources of revenue for government agencies.
- Direct marketers rely on lists designed to target individuals who are likely to respond to solicitations to determine who should be solicited for a particular product, service, or fund raiser. Frequently, they rent preexisting lists from list brokers who group information such as similar interests, characteristics, and purchasing habits. The list may be obtained from consumer surveys, warranty or response cards, and customer purchase data. The lists may also be merged with other lists or with information from other sources, such as public records and magazine subscriptions.
- Reference services gather information from a variety of sources, compile it, and then make it commercially available. Common users of reference services include law firms, private investigators, and law enforcement officials. Consumer reporting agencies are also a source of a great deal of information about the consumer's finances.
- Credit reporting agencies are a source of a great deal of information about the consumer's finances: employer, credit card and loan account numbers, amount of available credit, amount of outstanding debt, payment histories, and default, judgement and bankruptcy information.