[Editor's note: While researching this story, JR Raphael discovered the Coldplay radio station I created on Pandora on August 13, 2006; found that I had looked into purchasing a 4-foot iPod-compatible 3.5mm audio cable in October of 2007; and sleuthed out what my StumbleUpon user name is.Though only my musical taste was mildly incriminating, it was freaky to see what details popped up. (Do I want my hipster friends to know that I like Chris Martin and his melodic cohorts?) Read on to find out how deep these searches can go.]
I know things about my lawyer I absolutely should not know. He's 55 years old, listens to the music of the band Creed, and screams like a little girl when riding roller coasters. He also relaxes with New Age spa treatments and is thinking about getting an electronic nose hair trimmer. And that's just the start.
Now, let me be clear: I've never spent a single moment outside the office with this guy (and for what it's worth, I'd just as soon not be privy to his personal grooming habits). I learned all of these details by tracking his social footprint across the Web--and he probably has no idea that he has left such a vivid trail behind.
In our age of social sharing, we expect some of our thoughts to be public. But as we slowly put more and more pieces of ourselves online, specialized search engines are making it easier than ever to pull them together into a highly detailed (and potentially invasive) profile of our virtual lives (read "Online Stalking Made Easy").
I'll let you in on a little secret: The picture isn't always pretty. And even no rap sheet turns up, do you really want the world to know that you look at bad breath cures online or post awful Star Trek fan fiction?
The Depths of the Deep Web
You hear a lot of terms bounced around when you talk about this growing breed of search engines. Some services like to be called "social search" utilities, while others prefer the phrase "people search." Many boast of their ability to delve through the "Deep Web" that even Google doesn't touch.
"Even though most people think the size of the Web is basically the Google crawl index, there's actually a lot of information that Google doesn't crawl," says Harrison Tang, founder and CEO of Spokeo--which, taking a mash-up approach to its identification, describes itself as a "social people search engine" service.
Spokeo, like its competitors Pipl and CVGadget, is designed to let you dig up information on friends, foes, and anyone in between. Spokeo goes a step farther than many of the other services, though, by importing your entire e-mail address book.
Then, for a few bucks a month, it continually monitors your contacts and lets you know whenever anyone has done anything new, anywhere online. (The site's home page promises to help you "uncover personal photos, videos, and secrets," including "juicy" and "mouth-watering news about friends and coworkers.") [Editor's note: Pipl reports that my former boss donated $500 during the 2004 presidential election--candidate not named.]
Each individual bit of information may seem insignificant, but the cumulative effect of seeing it assembled in a neatly packaged portfolio is enough to give almost anyone pause. [Editor's note: According to CVGadget's quick search, my college roommate researched the game of bocce ball recently for a children's book she's writing. And a former boyfriend I haven't spoken to since the 1980s appears to be an actor in Santa Barbara. Who knew?]
"Aggregated identity is actually a new type of identity," Tang says, theorizing about why so many people seem to use the word "spooky" when describing his service. "A lot of people know that they have a public MySpace page, a lot of people know that they have a public Twitter album. But, when combined together, it's not one plus one equals two--you actually create a new identity."
How Spokeo Works
Spokeo's system uses your contacts' e-mail addresses to track their activity on a few dozen services, ranging from basic blogs and social networks to a slew of photo- and video-sharing sites. That means the random photos of your kids you shared on Flickr two years ago (or perhaps those less innocent images from your spring break trip a decade earlier) will pop up right under your name, seconds after someone searches for you.
Less obvious sources such as Amazon Wish Lists, Pandora playlists, and movie rating sites fill in the colorful details that you may not have realized were out there at all--things like (in my lawyer's case) an affinity for New Age jams and nasal maintenance.
I found Mr. Attorney's age on an old MySpace profile and his roller coaster behavior on a personal YouTube video, but Pandora divulged his cravings for Creed and his suggested usages for the "Spa Radio" station he had created. As for the nose hair trimmer, he can thank his Amazon Wish List for sending that factoid my way.
For Sale: Your Information
Other services access the same data and then sell the information under the banner of marketing research. One highly visible example is Rapleaf, a company that describes its services as "data and people lookup." Clients pay thousands of dollars to have detailed social profiles compiled of individuals in their own customer databases. As is the case with the data that Spokeo assembles, the information is all publicly available--Rapleaf just brings it together. "Things that people have posted are out there for anyone to come and see," says Joel Jewitt, Rapleaf's vice president of business development. "As long as you're not going beyond that, that's within the privacy norms today."
Most of Rapleaf's clients, Jewitt says, are simply trying to understand how to use social media more effectively for marketing. An auto manufacturer, for example, might want to know which car models its customers are checking out and discussing on social Internet services. Armed with the company's list of customer e-mail addresses, Rapleaf would crawl the Web and track down the information, person by person.
"It's pretty standard Web spidering," Jewitt says. "We re-create in an automatic way what someone from the general public would be able to do if they were looking."
Whether they target businesses or individuals, the services have one thing in common: Unlike the public record-driven search tools of the past, the new people-tracking utilities build a highly detailed dossier about you solely from information that you yourself published--a circumstance that may give you a distinct feeling of discomfort.
"What it does is make the ubiquity of the Internet and the sheer openness of the world tangible," says Internet privacy expert Kevin B. McDonald, executive vice president of Alvaka Networks, a network management firm. "It makes the whole concept of the world sharing of information and the 'no-walls' approach that the Internet was designed for very real to people."
The reality can be chilling if the information is going to certain interested individuals: a curious client, a boss big on background checks, or an obsessive ex, say. A recent study reported that half of all British Internet users surveyed admitted to having used the Internet to look up information on a former flame. The ease with which someone can arrange to monitor your every electronic move certainly adds a new dimension to the idea of fixation.
"It is a little 'stalkery,'" says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "If the information is distributed, that's actually a form of privacy. When it's gathered up in one place, it creates some new risks."
Rotenberg is no fan of companies that assemble nuggets of personal but public information to turn a profit. "The fact that someone's made something public doesn't mean that someone else can sell it," he contends. "I would say even with affirmative consent, if there's going to be a market for personal data, the user should get some percentage of whatever value the data has."
The thing to remember, of course, is that these services aren't doing anything illegal. The information they gather is information that anyone who knew where to look--and had the time to do it--could find. So rather than ignoring the king-size file that may have been collected on you, McDonald suggests, you should try to use it as a tool to understand and control your online identity.
"I've come to the point where rather than be driven by the Internet, I intend to drive it to the degree that I can," he says.
"All you can do is learn to live with it," McDonald says. "That's the confines of the world that we live in."
For suggestions on concrete steps you can take to reduce your online exposure, see "People Search Engines: Slam the Door on What Info They Can Collect."
This story, "People Search Engines: They Know Your Dark Secrets" was originally published by PCWorld.