Privacy concerns over people search database Spokeo.com

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by Meredith Yeomans

azfamily.com

Posted on June 1, 2010 at 9:37 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 2 at 11:32 AM

PRESCOTT - Shocking! That's how Spokeo.com describes its website, a website you can uncover all kinds of information on just about anyone.

“And it's just outrageous,” Prescott mother Kelly Martin said.

Martin doesn't like the website.

But out of curiosity, she recently logged on and within seconds was able to find what she calls sensitive information -- addresses, phone numbers, average income for your neighborhood, occupation – Martin even found photos of her son and husband who, because of his job at a prison, has always taken extra precaution to protect his identity.

“We've been so strict, especially with the Internet stuff as far as making sure we were protected, and it was absolutely shocking to see this,” Martin said.

Data Doctors owner Ken Colburn says Spokeo.com is one of about 150 people search directories now on the Internet. Many of those websites allow consumers to opt out if you don't want your information displayed.

“It's a really, really intense version of the phone book,” Colburn explained.

He says websites like Spokeo, DirtSearch.org and Pipl.com scan public records, Internet blogs and social media websites to get its information.

It's angered some folks.

In fact, more than 2,500 Facebook users have said "No More Spokeo," and are encouraging people to ask Spokeo to remove their names and information.

Certain information on the website is free, but for just a few bucks a month, users can get more detailed results on a person.

“Oh wow, and it's only $2.95 a month, I did not know that, that's scary,” Martin said.

The information can often be inaccurate.

Colburn says the search directories piece together your profile using things like your name and email address.

“So if you're one of those people that uses the same email address over and over again on everything you do, you're making it very easy for these sites to pull all this stuff together and get a pretty accurate profile of who you are,” he said.

Spokeo.com tells 3 On Your Side since the launch of its new version in February, the website now gets millions of hits per day.

In an e-mail, a company representative writes:

“The concept of Spokeo was first created in 2005, when Harrison and his fellow co-founders were at Stanford. Before Spokeo 4, the current version which was launched at the end of February 2010, Spokeo solely focused on aggregating information from social networks. As we started receiving more user feedback, Spokeo began to evolve into a people search tool.

Spokeo crawls the web to gather information from sources such as social networks, business sites, phone directories, marketing surveys, and more. We also have expanded our sources to include mailing lists, government census, and real estates listings. We also have partners that we gather information from as well. In simple terms, we aggregate various pieces of information about a person from online and offline sources, and compile the information into an organized listing. We realize that we need to work on the accuracy of the data, which can be done by acquiring more sources, and we are actively working on improving this. Spokeo presents an objective view of people, with information from 3rd party sources.

During the first week of Spokeo 4's launch, there wasn't a lot of action that occurred; but by day 10, we went from receiving 100 emails per day, to receiving over 2,000 emails per day. Our traffic greatly increased and the site now receives millions of hits per day. We did not advertise the release, and the tech-based writers and bloggers we first notified were not interested in writing about Spokeo 4, since they did not think it was that revolutionary. Once the mainstream users discovered Spokeo however, the site took off.  We now realize that many people don't know about websites such as whitepages.com, or know that Google street view is available or exists. Spokeo is a small company, we were an 8 person team during the launch of Spokeo 4, and the launch came very suddenly, so we have been working hard to listen to our user's feedback and adjust the site accordingly.

As far as privacy concerns, I've observed a lot of myths that have been going around about Spokeo that may affect what people think about the site. Spokeo does not display credit score/information, social security numbers, or drivers licenses. We only display publicly accessible information. We offer a free opt out privacy page where people can remove their listings from, which has been in place since day 1 of the launch. We value people's privacy, and gladly accept feedback so that we can continue to make improvements to the site. For example, we have removed the full address and the Google street view of homes from our free/public searches. This is only the first version of Spokeo 4, and our engineers and customer support team are working hard to improve Spokeo in all areas. Our future plans are focusing our giving our users more control over their information.”

Kelly Martin claims she tried to remove her information and it wasn't that easy.

But, she finally did manage to get some of her information removed, and wants people to know, while you think you’re protected, private information could be just a click away.

“Double check your privacy settings, make sure you know what you're showing people,” she said.

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