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Dump The Porn! Spokeo Has Blown Your Cover

[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She has studied what makes some individuals embrace or avoid information technology. (She’s definitely one of the former.) Michelle helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Here's her take on Spokeo.]

By R. Michelle Green

A friend was incensed and frightened to discover that Spokeo.com knew where he lived. Maybe it was the picture of his front door that really freaked him out. Welcome to the 21st century. Ain’t data mining a bitch?

Spokeo says it’s not your grandma’s phone book. With Spokeo, you can find contact information searching by name, email address, or phone number. It calls itself a search engine specializing in organizing people-related information.

Register with Spokeo and it can aggregate the data from your favorite social networks in one place. No more checking Facebook, then Linked In, then Live Journal, then Amazon, etc.. Just let Spokeo access your e-mail account and it will harvest your contacts, go get public information about them, and aggregate all that data. You can keep up with everyone’s latest photos and status updates in one place.

While it was new to me and my friend, Spokeo has been around for a while. It first appeared in 2006. Spokeo 4.0 launched in March of this year, and traffic surged within weeks of the announcement. They are already apologizing for no longer being able to respond to callers within 3 to 4 hours.

What does Spokeo really do? Why is it so scary? It makes data mining visible.

I first understood data mining in 1996 after reading William Gibson’s book Idoru. The main character was so adept at reading the digital footprint left by human interactions on the net that he was hired to determine if the title character was real or virtual.

Knowing this can be done and seeing the result are two different things, however. Wait until Spokeo can access purchase records from Netflix or Amazon! (Oh, stop choking. They only look at publicly available data. Oh, you have public wish lists and profiles on both? Never mind. As you were.) Though it’s far from scientific, I searched about 30 names and about 45 emails so far. I searched myself extensively, of course.

So far, the creepy stuff isn’t always that accurate. A lot of the information is clearly from statistical guesses (if you’re living in a zip code that’s 92 percent white, it’s not a stretch to guess you’re Caucasian). I got different results looking by name or by e-mail; and the more established the e-mail, the more extensive the results. No surprise there.

Even the errors are informative, however – some physical locations associated with searches were wrong today, but reflected locations that were, at one time, true. That’s why these sites aren’t putting private investigators out of business. On the other hand, it’s giving them a hell of a helping hand.

So how does Spokeo work? It searches everything. No, you didn’t hear me. Everything. Every publicly available source of information they can get to. That includes phone listings, political contributions, home ownership, posted photos, etc. If you own your home, and use online photo sites, Spokeo could use Google Maps to display your front door, or perhaps Picasa to display a picture of your three kids and the dog.

Anyone can get this on search. Register as a user and you can see more. This blog has a screenshot of what a Spokeo page can look like for registered users. On the other hand, if your name is really common, or you use multiple names (like Richard Dean Anderson from Stargate, for example), Spokeo struggles. And right now, I think the surge in demand is significantly slowing their servers’ response times. Those issues are surely transient.

The scariest thing for me – searching my email addresses. Even for free, it showed some of the blogs that I frequented, a few mixes I’d shared on Pandora. A friend thinks he has a secret email address he’s used for years for naughty searches. I’d told him it was suspect, that by now Google could aggregate his real and his secret identity, but he’d paid me little attention. Entering the secret email on Spokeo immediately revealed his real name. I showed him the link face-to-face, I wanted to watch the top of his head blow off. Good thing for him his wife doesn’t like technology like I do.

What can you do to protect yourself? You can opt out so that your results do not appear if you are searched. Fine print: you can only opt out of name and phone number search, and you have to give them your e-mail to engage this feature. Since they only use public information, you can go to all your sites and make sure you’ve read all their Privacy rules and engaged all the appropriate settings. When Spokeo next updates, your newly private data will disappear. Snopes alleges that Spokeo does not always take expeditious action on these requests.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg might call me an old fuddy duddy for even raising these issues. He says that privacy is no longer a social norm. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt takes the offensive. He says if I have to hide something I shouldn’t be doing it, and name checks the Patriot Act for good measure. You may agree with them. So, Spokeo may not bother you – yet.

By the way – Spokeo will show you even more if you pay them money. And here’s the kicker: the cost for three months is about what you’d pay for popcorn and soda at the movies.

Happy stalking.

© 2010. R. Michelle Green. Reprinted with permission.


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Lori Magno

Well checking out my profile was worth a good chuckle. George, you will be surprised to know that I am Asian. (My husband will be surprised as well.)

Aggregate away mothertruckers, there is a special place in Hell.


Thanks for sharing. At least Facebook and Spokeo tell us consumers what they are doing. Lots of other companies don't.

And, this situation highlights why I tell everyone NOT to publish their birth date on social networking sites. That data makes it easy for data aggregators and data-mining companies to match records when people share the same name.

Then, they'll know for sure that you are not Asian.


R. Michelle Green

I suspect this is only the beginning. As the norm for privacy shifts and evolves, at some point will we just know everything about everybody? How will two people falling in love ever retain any mystery or joy in discovery? Eh, too romantic for my own good.... Thanks for your comment Lori...


I can't wait to see the faces of the people I hear say, "there's nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide" when someone uses their information, particularly when the information is incorrect. Imagine "McCarthy" having this kind of tool.


Yes! People have made public comments only later to have been embarrassed by identity theft and fraud. Read this blog post about two examples:

Twice Bitten: Acts of Stupidity Can Lead to Identity Theft


R. Michelle Green

My thoughts exactly Jeff, and thanks for your comment -- though if you grow up with these tools, will you behave differently from the onset? Maybe it's the people in the transition state that have the most reason to be anxious... article from the 5/15/09 Chronicle of Higher Ed: "Alumni Try to Rewrite History on College-Newspaper Web Sites" adults concerned that actions taken when their freak flag was still flying are now indexed by Google.... http://chronicle.com Section: Information Technology Volume 55, Issue 36, Page A1

background checks

Even if you have your information removed from these personal data aggregators, there is no guarantee that it will not find its way back on the site with later database updates that pull from social networks and public records sites.

R. Michelle Green

quite right, 'background checks' -- and the cached sites visible in search engines like Google also increases the half life of some stuff one thinks is gone. And if you're really determined, you can always try the Wayback Machine -- the best presumption is that nothing put on the net is ever really deleted...


On top of this website being an invasion of privacy, if you indeed sign up for it you opt into a SCAM! I signed up for spokeo to see what all information was given, and cancelled my subscription the very same day. For the next year a company called IDprotect charged me $14.95 a month (under various different names). When I finally realized it I went through hell reporting the credit card fraud, only for them (capital one) to put the charges right back on my card. They contacted IDprotect, who told them that when I signed up for Spokeo and agreed its terms of use I had also agreed for IDprotect to charge me this monthly amount (WHICH WAS NOT STATED IN THE TERMS OF USE!). STAY AWAY FROM THIS WEBSITE!

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