Like Privacy? You May Have Some Opting Out To Do.

Chris CrumSearch

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Have you ever looked at Spokeo? If not, you might want to check it out - that is if you're concerned about your online privacy. There's a good chance they have a profile on you, and it may have more information than you care to have publicly accessible in any one place. And that's just the free part, if you pay, you can get access to even more information. 

Do you approve of Spokeo hosting this information? Tell us what you think

Spokeo would not let us interview them, but they did tell us: 

"The driving force behind our product was to create a more efficient and user-friendly people-search engine that would allow users to locate information and keep up with their friends more easily."

"It's important to understand, however, that offering a more efficient mechanism by which to pull together information is not the same as providing greater access to personal information."

We spoke with privacy advocate Dr. Larry Ponemon, founder of privacy research firm, The Ponemon Institute. "From a privacy perspective, it's kind of a scary event when you, as in individual don't have control over your personal information," he tells WebProNews. "In a nutshell, we all feel like we should somehow be involved in making that decision - whether information about us is being shared with third-parties and organizations. And Spokeo is in the business of selling information about people, as I understand it, without getting any consent or any advanced opt-in or opt-out. We are basically powerless against organizations like Spokeo."

By the way, your home address is likely included in your Spokeo profile, which is conveniently aided by Google Maps Street View, so anyone searching for you can virtually go right up to your front door. Street View itself has had plenty of privacy battles over the years on its own. Those worried about that should just love Spokeo's integration. 

"There's also a secondary issue, which is really equally as scary," says Ponemon. "That's the possibility that information used and collected about you, by companies like Spokeo, is in fact inaccurate information...can you imagine information that is inaccurate, and then people making decisions about you on the basis of not the truth, but inaccurate information? And you again, as a consumer, are powerless to do anything to even change the information known to be inaccurate."

By browsing the profile created about me on the site, it is clear that there are indeed plenty of inaccuracies in the information, which really makes me wonder how many more inaccuracies are available for paying customers. 

As our own Abby Johnson mentions in the video above, the inaccuracies of Spokeo's information likely stem from public databases that are not maintained.

"I understand the business model that Spokeo is in, and I'm sure they're going to make a ton of money if they have the legal right to continue what they do, but from a privacy and an information and ethics perspective, this is is a big problem," says Ponemon. 

"The general issue in privacy litigation is that you have to establish harm, and the problem in many of the cases - and this is why a lot of cases get dismissed early - is because it's hard to demonstrate harm, when in fact your information is inaccurate or it's misused or you're not involved in the decision for the organization to collect and use that information. It seems that the key issue is demonstrating harm," he continues. "The problem is that you can't look at harm in a short timeline, because right now you have inaccurate information, so what's the harm? Maybe there's almost no harm to you. But mabye five or six or seven years from now, there will be an employment decision made based on the infromation contained today in Spokeo. Maybe you'll be denied a job or maybe you'll be denied a loan..."

He thinks organizations like the FTC will take a close look. 

A Spokeo spokesperson told WebProNews, "As part of our commitment to privacy, Spokeo offers an opt-out feature that is faster and easier to complete than most other people search sites. All that is required of users is an email verification process, not submitting hard copies of driver's licenses, Social Security Numbers, or other forms of identity via fax or mail."

The opt-out process does appear to work. I went through it, and my profile disappeared. Given that Spokeo's such a household name, this should set everyone's mind at ease.  (sarcasm intended, in case that wasn't obvious

I'll have to remember to check back from time to time and make sure it stays gone. 

You can read Spokeo's privacy policy here

By the way, Spokeo's traffic has been skyrocketing, with over 9 million unique visitors in January, according to Compete.

Do you find Spokeo's practices to be a violation of privacy? Share your thoughts.

Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.