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OMG! They’re putting information on the Internet!

Submitted by on Monday, 29 March 2010 No Comment
Your personal information posted online!

It's 411 for pedophiles - a major security risk!

It's called Spokeo - a name parodied two years ago as Spookey, the Big Brother of Social Networking sites.

And, in the end, it's mostly no big deal. It doesn't offer information that hasn't been readily available for years, through both big providers such as Accurint or pay-per-view services such as KnowX. Both are under the LexisNexis corporate umbrella now, and I'll admit that having that much information in the hands of one company is a little disconcerting.

I've used all of the other three services before, for professional reasons, as well as various real estate data bases. I can tell you that what Spokeo provides doesn't even come close to the others in terms of accuracy or thoroughness.

On me, for example, it pulled up a year-old address and a two-year-old phone number. It had the wrong birthdate as well.

I also searched eight other people I know well, and three didn't even turn up. Of the five who did, the age was off by decades on one, another had a wrong address, a third didn't include a phone number and another incorrectly listed an advanced degree.

It was, however, unerringly correct on photographs of houses when it did turn up the correct address. I think that's the part that makes many folks shiver.

The only part that bugs me is I've never been able to figure out how they compile the data. It's not through social media alone, because three of the six people I found results for have no online footprint whatsoever. No shopping history, no Facebook accounts. Two of the three don't even have email accounts.

It's not based on voter registration records, because two of the six people I found have never been registered.

It's not based on the phone book, because two of my test subjects have never had telephones under their names.

I used to suspect that utilities were selling information to the providers, but in the case of my search at least two folks have never had utilities in their names.

The problem I have is the seemingly most benign part, the summary of interests. Spokeo says it's based on "marketing surveys, consumer records, and public data sources and is not guaranteed to be 100% accurate. "

In my case, it was about 80 percent accurate. They lost points for flagging me as playing sports and loving to travel. They've obviously never read my blog posts about how hopelessly unathletic I am or about how I'd rather have my fingernails pulled out with white-hot tweezers than travel even as far as the grocery store with children.

I don't fill out marketing surveys, and there's no way this can be from public data. However, there are plenty of data that should be private that would falsely paint me as a jet-setting athlete. It all comes from either credit or debit card purchases or from browsing amazon.com. Some news stories have suggested that the source is the latter, but I know there's more to it than that.

Spokeo accurately pegged one person I know as liking toys, and that person is a collector. But the collections were not purchased through Amazon. Neither could a data miner find out about my travel habits purely by scraping Amazon.

I don't mind at all that Spokeo is combing the Web and social media sites for publically available information. Anyone who does should check their privacy settings on their social media accounts, as well as on Spokeo. If  you're going to opt out of Spokeo, just to be on the safe side I'd use a fairly disposable email account. They say they need the address for verification only, but who knows.

I do mind, though, that they're able to get a fairly accurate, albeit vague, list of interests. I don't know what Spokeo's "consumer records" consist of, but I don't think they should be able to access them.

As for the rest, well, that's life in the 21st Century. Database and computing power allow us to find information more quickly, but it was information that was out there all along. It just took a million paper cuts, as opposed to a few keystrokes, to find it.

Compiling and mining our shopping and spending habits, though, is another story. I don't think I like the way it ends, either.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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