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