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With all the negative attention that Facebook has received for its privacy approach recently, the media — and regulators — are especially sensitive about online privacy right now.

But there's another kind of site that is raising privacy flags. People search. These sites compile personal data without consumers' knowledge. It's just the kind of thing that is sure to draw regulators. But lumping these sites in with online marketing efforts is a mistake.

The data collected on sites like ZabaSearch, BeenVerified, and Spokeo makes people very uncomfortable. It's not just personal data. It is personally identifiable (and often free). You can find people's names, addresses and income — regardless of whether they've ever signed on to these sites. But people search sites aren't stealing this info. They're gathering it from publicly available sources.

They crawl the web, gathering data from social networks, business sites, phone directories, marketing surveys and publicly available records like mailing lists and census reports.

Once that all gets collected in one place it starts to feel like a violation. Until recently, for instance, Spokeo paired people’s addresses with images of their homes found on Google street view.

The internet makes things like that easy. But consumers are not pleased. There's now a Facebook group called NO MORE SPOKEO, and a growing number of groups trying to get such services stopped.  Local television crews are on the beat, and more than a few local government agencies are initiating investigations.
 
Spokeo’s tagline is “not your grandma’s phonebook,” and the site prides itself on the breadth of information it has collected on people. It isn't always accurate, but as people share more info online and more government agencies work toward transparency of public records, that is sure to change.

Spokeo doesn’t think it is doing anything wrong. A spokesperson told me:

“As far as privacy concerns, I've observed a lot of myths that have been going around about Spokeo that may affect what people think about the site. Spokeo does not display credit score/information, social security numbers, or drivers licenses. We only display publicly accessible information. There are privacy concerns among the mainstream public, which is why we offer our free opt out privacy page where people can remove their listings from.”

They do have a point. According to Lisa Sotto, a partner at Hunton & Williams LLP:

“We need to get comfortable with the fact that we live in the information age. Data is going to be ubiquitous and available.”

Sotto says that the internet hasn’t eliminated privacy, it has just made it easier to organize and find information.

“Privacy in the past was really a function of the data being dispersed in file cabinets in hard copy. Now you can find a huge amount of data from one chair.”

But that doesn't mean that regulation won't happen.  Sotto says the main problem is that “it's extremely difficult to legislate in this arena other than to impose very broad rules.”

And if people search sites get regulated with broad rules many other areas online would be affected. Already, online marketers are having trouble collecting and retaining information they use to target consumers.

Regulation in this area could make that worse, even though most of the information collected on people search sites is useless to digital marketers.

According to Mike Zaneis, vice president of public policy at the Internet Advertising Bureau:

"The dangerous part is when these types of practices become conflated with mainstream marketing practices."

If Congress were to get something like people search in its cross hairs, it could have serious repercussions for the online ad industry. While seeing information like name, address and household income can be frightening for individuals, it's not the kind of information that marketers find useful.

In the offline world, marketers have long been targeting consumers based on their address and personalizing mailings. But online, purchasing and browsing history is more valuable than your name and birthdate.

However, the automatic opt-in nature of both services could get them lumped together in the eyes of regulators. Says Zaneis:

"The challenge is to educate about the actual business model online, and not have offline fears drive the debate in the online world."

Image: Spokeo

Meghan Keane

Published 28 May, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

Comments (6)

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Krystian

It's good to know that we still have influence on the Social giants. Those local protests remind me of Tesco strategy and them coming to small towns and enforcing their shops onto communities, in some extreme cases they were chased away by angried residents. Let's not let Facebook spoil our connection with our friends, it is going too far at the moment and it has to be limited for security, it's not controlled, there is no "facebook police", you can't tell a genuine person on Facebook from a pretender, just wait till scams come to facebook, I might stop getting emails from Nigerian Kings etc, and start getting invites into money making schemes etc on facebook...

over 6 years ago

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Mark

I see no Opt Out button available. Maybe if I sign up and pay them and look my own listing up, I might be able to remove it, but then they have confirmation that their information is accurate, and behind the scenes, there is no way they are deleting anything.

You have no influence on any company gathering personal market data on you to delete their data. They have backups of all this data, and when the company sells itself, that is all part of the value to the next owner. Even if your friends can't see or use the data, the company can still sell the anonymous results of the use of the data. It is part of the value of the company, and they are not going to let that go.

I challenge an owner to argue this point.

over 6 years ago

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Richard

I notice that the three sites mentioned are US only. Are there any that do the same with UK/European data. If not then I imagine it's only a matter of time; or else they sell their services rather than offering them freely. It's taken a long time for the penny to drop with Facebook. I've never been against it, or other social networks, as it's the user's perogative to display as much or as little personal data as they wish to. However, what I have been against is the lack of information relating to what they do with the data once they have it. More privacy controls and more transparency on use of data is what is needed, though I doubt I'll ever be tempted.

over 6 years ago

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Internet Marketing Los Angeles

Social networking sites have created a good influence over people for the relevancy and correctness of the data that floats from these sites. People when use these information should try to find the accuracy of the related data and then use it.

over 6 years ago

Neville Luff

Neville Luff, Consultant at N3V digital

Hi Meghan, great post this is something I have sen rising more and more recently and makes me extremely uncomfortable. With FB I know what data I have put on their I can control it and monitor it becuase I know it is there. But once whilst bored I Googled myself :) like many do and discovered 123 people with a wealth of info including me wish list from Amazon! Also apparaently I had recently won a martial arts contest in america, so I congratualted myself on that :) but they also had images taken from FB, so any one that wanted to know anything about could do so easily.

Fortunately I dont think I have any private investigators or stalkers after me but the implications are more than a little terrifying.

I did cantact them and ask them to remove my listing but they refused saying that as all this info is public they have every right to post it!

For me this is more important to be addressed than FB's privacy rules right now at least in my view FB do care about privacy these peole don't.

over 6 years ago

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Amanda

Its MY information

I have a right to see what data is being held and what they intend to do with it.

I should also have a right to ask them to delete it.

We have privacy and Data Retention laws in the UK shame the rest of the world doesn't

If they intend to sell it and make money from it, then damnit I want my cut.

It's difficult enough to earn a wage and keep the money flowing in at a time like this and not all of us are lucky enough to have a job.

These people are printing their own money, and I disagree intensely with it.

How do we know they are not selling it to unscrupulous companies who can use the information against us? CC Fraud etc

over 6 years ago

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