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Jul 22

Privacy Unplugged

by Lynn • July 22, 2010

Privacy Unplugged

Preface

Spokeo’s privacy practices have been a sizzling hot topic of late. The rumors and conjecture surrounding our most recent product seem to have proliferated like wildfire, pervading the blog circuit and media in surprising ways. To help clear up the confusion and dispel some of the more baffling myths, we would like to spotlight some of the more incendiary notions circulating, and take a closer look at what seems to be spurring the commotion.

Our Genesis 

The driving force behind all innovation and new-product design is to fill a need — to provide a smarter, more efficient, and easier-to-use tool or mechanism, which in some way improves upon the old, or offers a solution where none existed. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and Spokeo is no exception to this adage. 

The impetus 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 across social networks. We recognized that there was a growing need to track and organize content in this arena in a meaningful way, and we came up with an effective solution by which to do so. 

Since then, our product has evolved and expanded significantly to incorporate other data and search modalities, ultimately becoming a full-fledged people-search engine. Despite the breadth of our later iteration, however, our core approach has never changed. While we do provide an efficient mechanism by which to pull published information together from multiple sources, we continue to aggregate this information from public records only, and do not provide access to private or secure data.

Psychology and Mythology 

We recognize that for some users it can be a startling experience to encounter a block of personalized information which they may otherwise be unaware exists – particularly when the information is of a type they may perceive as “private.”  It is important to understand, however, that Spokeo does not generate any data, nor is it the source.  We simply aggregate public records already published across the Internet and other venues, many of which have been in existence for a very long time.   

To shed light on some common misconceptions, Spokeo does not possess Social-Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, bank accounts, or other private financial information, such as credit scores. We are not a credit reporting agency. We do not issue consumer reports, nor do we draw conclusions about the public records we do aggregate. Indices that are sometimes mistaken for actual credit information are in reality prevalent marketing profiles of the ilk advertisers have been relying upon for decades. 

Spokeo was and remains a search engine. Much like Google we simply aggregate already published, public records.  Further, since individual profiles are only as accurate as the published information they are comprised of, we continue to remind users that any information on our site is not guaranteed for accuracy and therefore should be regarded as a reference only.   

Controlling Privacy

Spokeo receives millions of searches a month, yet very few opt-out requests. Though these requests represent only a small percentage of our total usage, we value all user input, and remain highly sensitive to any concerns some may harbor regarding their privacy.

Since our launch in 2006, Spokeo has consistently incorporated user feedback to help improve our product.  At present a core aim of our development is to accommodate mainstream consumers seeking greater control over the information that is available about them. 

The first step we implemented in this plan was to provide a straightforward, easy-to-use, opt-out option. At present a user can opt out of their listing and remove it from Spokeo with only a few clicks of a mouse. (For full instructions on how to opt out please visit the Privacy page.)

It is noteworthy that few search engines offer a full opt-out feature, or if they do, make it remotely as easy to use. The small percentage that do offer this option frequently employ lengthy and demanding authentication processes, often requiring one to submit hard copies of driver’s licenses, social security numbers, or other forms of identity via fax or mail.  Spokeo not  only allows users to opt out fully – it allows them to do so easily with only a single e-mail.

Some people want to know why we require an e-mail, and speculate about whether it is for purposes of collecting more information. It is not. The reason Spokeo requires an e-mail to opt out is for the same reason that many other websites do — namely, to authenticate that the request is in fact coming from a person and not a spambot – a malicious program that could otherwise wipe out the entire data base. 

Spokeo’s opt-out procedure is really quite simple.  As indicated on the Privacy page, one simply copies the URL (web address) of the listing they wish to have removed, and pastes that address into the designated URL bar on the “Remove a Listing” page. Next they enter an e-mail address where they would like a confirmation link sent, and click on the “Remove Listing” button. It’s that simple. A link is then sent to the e-mail address for verification. 

In the verification email we do remind the requester that opting out will not remove their information from the web. The internet is, as most recognize, a virtually endless network of information sources. The many sources Spokeo relies upon to obtain data remain, and continue to be accessible. The best we can do is offer some control over what information is available on our site.  Which brings us to our next point…  

On The Horizon  

Spokeo, and society as a whole, are at the vanguard of an information-age revolution. As the internet expands, users and product innovators alike continue to broach new frontiers that stretch the notion of anonymity as we knew it. In the late 90s, posting photos online was almost inconceivable. Today it is the norm.  A few years ago, sharing what you were doing or where you were in real time was unimaginable. Today services like Twitter and Foursquare are all the rage.  These cultural changes have new privacy implications, and technologies like Spokeo are helping to reveal and shape new norms.  

As the Internet becomes increasingly people-centered (as evidenced by the rise of social networks and social media across the board), focus is shifting from “loss of anonymity,” to greater vigilance and control over how information is presented. Recently Spokeo declared its ground-breaking objective to be the first data aggregator ever to offer users some measure of control over the public information that is published about them. This is an ambitious undertaking that presents numerous challenges, but our engineers are already working feverishly to deliver upon that objective, and we hope to unveil our new privacy controls within the year.

In the meantime Spokeo not only remains a great people-search engine, it provides valuable insight into what types of public information are published about an individual, and presents a great way to monitor one’s own virtual identity as well. To learn more about Spokeo and privacy, please refer to Spokeo’s Privacy Policy page.

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