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Spokeo raises privacy concerns

By Megan Oshiro

Even people who never use a computer, like Wayne Oshiro, have a profile on Spokeo.

Thumbing through pages and pages of thick yellow-paged books, searching for peoples’ addresses and phone numbers, is now a thing of the past. What if you could just type a person’s name into a search bar, get their number and address, and even view a picture of their residence? You could even obtain an estimate of one’s personal wealth, the number of children they have and what religion they are affiliated with. These personal facts and many more are readily available in one click of a mouse, thanks to a website called Spokeo.

Jenifer Winter, an assistant professor in the School of Communications at UH, strives to educate social media users about privacy on the Internet.

“All of these different databases create digital shadows of us,” Winter said. “Where all of these phantom things about you are coming from, you don’t know anymore.”

“It’s so creepy,” said Danielle Otero after she found her own profile on Spokeo. “You can find anyone by knowing their name… it even has a little section where it lists details of your house, like how many bedrooms it has and even if you have a fireplace.”

What is Spokeo? 

Spokeo is a people-oriented search engine that aggregates information and conveniently organizes it onto a single profile page. The information is gathered from more than 50 public sources, such as telephone books, marketing lists, online surveys, social media sites and real estate listings.

There is no charge to search for people and obtain a basic profile, but to acquire more in-depth information, there is a nominal fee. For $2.95 a month, a Spokeo user can perform a name search, which can yield data such as a full home address and telephone number, email address, username, age, level of education and even ethnicity. For the same price, a user can perform a reverse telephone search that can produce results regarding the person connected to that specific phone number.

However, Spokeo does not claim that all of this information is accurate and up-to-date. Because Spokeo is not the primary source of information, the website states that “data is only as good as its original sources” and thus, “should only be used as a reference.”

Controlling Privacy

While Spokeo may appear to be invading an individual person’s privacy, in terms of legalities, the website is not doing anything unlawful. Spokeo is completely legal because its data is retrieved from public sources — documents and other forms of data that are accessible to the public. The website simply collects the information, organizes it into a single profile and allows its users to access a wealth of public knowledge about an individual through a simple search.

Gerald Kato, a University of Hawai‘i associate professor and media law expert, says he believes that the issue regarding a website like Spokeo is not one of privacy, but of the convenience and ease of access to personal information.

“People offer a lot of information about themselves that companies are ready to aggregate,” said Kato. “There’s a lot of information we are willing to provide through social media.”

By engaging in social media websites like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter, people readily open their lives to the public by posting information about themselves, such as their hometown, profession, hobbies and interests. People do not realize the consequences of participating in websites like these.

Even when social media users attempt to control who can see their profile information on their profile, information and photos can still fall through the cracks and be visible.

“When I have a Facebook, it’s for my friends to see, not for people I don’t know,” Otero said.

But sometimes, that just isn’t the case.

One Facebook blog site offers some helpful tips regarding Facebook’s privacy settings. The blog, however, points out that even when a user’s privacy setting is high, this still may not be enough to hide the visibility of something the user wants to remain private.

“Keep in mind that while you may have turned off the visibility of many profile sections, there is no way to prevent all photos or videos from being visible if friends of yours make the images visible,” said Nick O’Neill in his blog.

Loopholes like these may cause unwanted information and pictures to appear anywhere on the Internet, including a profile on Spokeo.

Inappropriate pictures and erroneous information can ruin online reputations, said Winter.  Restoring an online reputation proves to be even more troublesome. Moreover, when information is removed, it is often cached, or — in laymen’s terms — digitally archived on the Internet and still available to be viewed.

“We have no control over our digital shadow, even if it is wrong or you’ve changed,” said Winter.

What can be done?

While Spokeo allows people to remove their profile from the website and block their name, email address, phone number and username from search results, it does not guarantee that this information will not reappear.

According to the Spokeo website, they are “Constantly receiving new and updated listings, and we try very hard to match these new listings to the existing ones and preserve your privacy preference. However, 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. So if a new listing contains your new address, or if there are significant typos which prevent our computers from matching an existing listing, you will see a new listing for your name. We are constantly improving our matching algorithms in order to maintain your privacy.”

Furthermore, according to Spokeo, since the website aggregates public information from third party sources, removing a listing from Spokeo does not eliminate personal information from the original source.  In other words, information that is removed from Spokeo is still freely floating in cyberspace and readily accessible at anyone’s fingertips.

“Technology, just in its nature, is always outpacing regulations and laws,” said Winter.

She believes that the best way to regulate privacy on the Internet is to become an educated user.

“Voice your displeasure, tell your friends about it and learn about risks to mitigate damages and become active citizens,” she said.

While a search can yield public information already available on the Internet, there is one way people can control information they wish to keep private: Don’t post it, not even anonymously.