Spokeo appears to be the latest player in the personal data aggregator space, mashing up public data, web search results and social media to generate profiles about people and home addresses.
The concept isn’t new, although adding on social media contents further broadens the dimensions of content that could be compiled about an individual.
Other services out there have offered similar types of aggregation of personal data, such as: Zaba Search, Spock (acquired last year by Intelius), Intelius, Pipl, etc. These services typically go beyond a mere White Pages residential phone directory because they compile data from property records, criminal records, government databases, credit card information, and more.
Consumers who are less aware of the potential of databases and less versed in internet privacy issues are often astounded when they first see a service like Spokeo in action. Since many people have migrated from land-line telephones to cellphone-only service, traditional white pages have suffered (cell phone records are not published in directories, compared with landline phone numbers which used to be published as a matter of course unless they were set up as unlisted numbers). So, services like Spokeo definitely fill a significant niche as consumers desire to locate acquaintances.
For people like me who have extremely common surnames, these people search sites do not pose much of a risk in terms of privacy. Locating data about me in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where there are thousands of “Smiths” with identical and near-identical names, is a pointless endeavor. My common name masks my private data effectively, making me like a needle in a haystack.
For me, a larger concern is that such services, and even higher quality background search services, tend to greedily roll up data from people with similar names into profiles that should be about me or my address. Spokeo is a case in point — for my street address it mistakenly rolls some women’s names onto my address, understates my age by ten years, incorrectly identifies my career, and more.
My sister and a good friend of mine have received bills for others who share their names and have seen cases where background checks will return back incorrect information about crimes committed by their doppelgangers.
It’s bad enough to have to be concerned about online reputation management issues that really are about one, but to have to attempt to fight reputation management nightmares that are completely fictional is highly frustrating.
Services like Spokeo will be around for a long while, since obtaining public records and cross-referencing that data are relatively simple things to do. These services highlight some of the dangers of easily-searchable personal information — not only can information about you be easily discovered, but the sloppiness of their data aggregation could cause heartburn as people incorrectly assume that erroneous data about you is true.