Privacy blog postSometimes, the information I learn online raises more questions than it answers. For instance, did you know that my mother is the same age as my sister? Or that my parents’ home is worth  $331,000 more if my father is considered the owner than if my mother is considered the owner (does my father own more square feet than my mother owns?)? Even I didn’t know about my family’s chimerical history until I researched my own family members on Spokeo.com.

Spokeo is “not your grandma’s phonebook” (I bet Spokeo thinks my grandmother is the same age as my mother and my sister, but I digress). The website aggregates publicly available information to create individual profiles that anyone may access and search. Profiles contain a dizzying amount of information, including an individual’s address (complete with photographs), age, ethnicity, property value, interests, and income. You can learn about your professor’s love of gambling, your supposed best friend’s secret divorce, or even your neighbor’s shopping habits. Much of this information can be searched for free, but users can pay $2.95 per month to unlock access to shockingly more personal information — including ”credit estimates” and “wealth levels.”

Privacy advocates are concerned about the information Spokeo provides. On June 30th, 2010, the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Spokeo for engaging in unfair and deceptive business practices under Section 5 of the FTC Act, and for willful violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. CDT alleges it was “deceptive” under Section 5, for Spokeo to maintain profile information that not only lacked evidentiary support, but was also ”inaccurate or misleading.” Further, CDT claimed that despite the false information, Spokeo encouraged employers to research prospective hires on its website. CDT may be rightly concerned about the threat such information poses. In a 2010 study by Microsoft and Cross-Tab Market Research, seventy percent of U.S. recruiters admitted rejecting potential hires because of their online reputations. But Spokeo does not take responsibility for any false information on its website. Of course not, because “individual profiles are only as accurate as the published information they are comprised of.”

Users concerned about the privacy of their own information may request that Spokeo remove their information from public searches. Those who opt out will have their profile deleted from the site, but the information will not be deleted from whatever source provided Spokeo with the information.

Despite great promise, the opt-out system is unlikely to appease privacy advocates anytime soon. On January 12th, 2011, a blogger known as Dissent Doe filed a complaint with the FTC over zombie profiles. After opting out her family members from Spokeo, Dissent Doe later discovered that the profiles she attempted to remove had risen from the dead. Dissent Doe alleges that because the profiles she removed later reappeared on the site,  Spokeo’s opt-out system constitutes an unfair and deceptive practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

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Looking solely at deceptive practices, barred by Section 5, Dissent Doe may have a case. In June 2010, the FTC issued a Consent Order against Twitter after finding that Twitter engaged in deceptive practices by falsely representing that it implemented reasonable safeguards to protect the privacy settings chosen by users.

Similarly, Spokeo informs users that they may opt-out of the website to remove their profiles from public searches. But zombie profiles suggest that much like Twitter, Spokeo fails to implement reasonable measures to honor the privacy settings adopted by users. Though Spokeo points to technology as the culprit behind zombie profiles, that defense holds little water. According to a Spokeo spokesperson, “a computer cannot know the difference between ‘John Smith at 1234 Nowhere Street’ and ‘John Smith at 5678 Somewhere Avenue,’ though you may know that you moved.” But Dissent Doe’s zombie profiles apparently contained the same names and addresses as the originals he tried to remove, thereby casting doubt on Spokeo’s theory.

While we wait to see how and whether the FTC resolves these disputes, there are several steps you can take. If you own a business, you can hire a firm to manage the company’s online reputation (for a fee, of course). A second option is to restrict the pool of information Spokeo may access by turning on the highest privacy settings when you post on social networking sites. Finally,  follow the lead of Spokeo’s founder, Harrison Tang, and fill out this form (while crossing your fingers) to opt out of Spokeo’s searches. In the meantime, I suggest you join me in reading quite possibly the best fiction available today at Spokeo.com.

Ilana Kattan

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