Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remove Your Personal Data from Spokeo? Unlikely

More than likely, any attempt to remove your personal data from Spokeo.com will only result in Spokeo having more information about you.

Everytime I look around on Facebook lately, someone is posting a warning about Spokeo.com, the same website discussed in the video above. Spokeo is a personal information aggregator promoting itself as a search engine with the tagline "not your grandma's phone book." The site is making public in one place people's personal data that is normally considered private, such as your home address and net worth.

The invasion of privacy has people up in arms. My first thought when I noticed the warnings was, "Another annoying site?"

(Related: Is privacy a relatively new concept?)

Over the years I've learned there's not much you can do about bits of your life seeping out online short of staying offline and living far below the radar or living off the grid completely. The only people who may be relatively safe are those with common names like "Jane Smith" because it takes so long to figure out which Jane Smith that only someone being paid to find the right one will bother. However, even Dick and Jane can be assured that somebody, somewhere is watching and gathering not only their personal data but also their social and buying behaviors.

Nevertheless, with so many people posting concerns about Spokeo.com, and then last night even one of my local TV stations doing a segment about it, I decided it was time to pay Spokeo a visit. I entered my own name and some friends and family member's names, and I quickly discovered that of the private information Spokeo makes public about ordinary people, some is accurate and some is totally bogus. Either way, the exposure is a problem. Fake information can sometimes cause more problems than factual information.

But seeing an elderly relative or young female relative's actual address show up is disturbing for obvious reasons. I thought about the risk Spokeo and other sites like it may pose for women who are fleeing violent ex spouses or boyfriends when it makes phone numbers and addresses visible to anyone or how easily it would be for a con artist to use the data revealed to perhaps show up at a senior citizen's house and claim to know the senior. Will it take someone being swindled of life savings or killed to run the Spokeos of the Net out of business?

So, I clicked on its opt-out directions to remove my name and one of my children's names. I figured I'd tell friends and other family to go in and take their names out later, but as I thought about trying to remove my self, I decided to let it go. Like Hans Solo, I thought, "I've got a bad feeling about this."

I decided not to opt out because I suspected that the outcome of any attempt to remove myself would be that Spokeo ended up verifying my email address, which it would then post online or sell. Plus, if not Spokeo, then some other database down the road will pop up pimping uch private information again.

Investigators at Snopes.com came to similar conclusions:
"... removing your personal information from display by Internet aggregators isn't a one-time deal, but rather more like a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole: You might swat down an aggregator site or two, but more of them will inevitably pop up. ... Our repeated attempts to request the blocking of a particular record through Spokeo's privacy page have found the procedure to be highly questionable: no attempt is made to verify that the person requesting the blocking of a record is the person identified by that record, our efforts have never resulted in a successfully blocked record, and Spokeo's customer service group did not respond to any of our inquiries. ... Attempts to initiate record blocking are frequently met with error messages claiming that the provided e-mail address is invalid or that "in order to prevent abuse, we must limit the frequency of privacy requests." ... All of this has led some to speculate that one of Spokeo's core businesses is actually collecting e-mail addresses or pushing sales of privacy services."
I think Snopes contributors are on to something, especially with that final point of speculation.

In the video at the top of the post, a privacy expert advises that you should be careful about what you put online in the first place. Remember nothing really disappears from the Internet. Somewhere, some database has grabbed it and archived your data for posterity.

Most likely, the government is the only entity that can stop this kind of intrusion by making it illegal for third party sources to make private citizens' information visible to casual Internet surfers without the citizen's explicit permission. I don't think the government can stop these aggregators from selling the information. The junk mail industry has thrived on these kinds of sales for years. But some kind of legislation should be able to stop aggregators from exposing the phone numbers, home addresses, and personal income of people with whom these sites have no direct relationship. Or at least perhaps some kind of privacy legislation can force these sites to reveal the original sources so citizens can have their information hidden at those websites or databases.

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