Sunday, June 27, 2010

Too Much Information! Opting Out of Spokeo

Too much information.  I don't recall exactly when the phrase "too much information" entered our collective consciousness.  It may refer to details about your last midnight hookup at Denny's or conception of your third child in an airplane or your most recent case of the stomach flu you caught from your best friend's sister.  Who knows?  Maybe more people than you think.  Or more people than you want to know, possibly because they read your blog post or Facebook post on Spokeo.

What is SpokeoSpokeo is an information company that provides information about you to me, unless you opt out.  According to the company itself, Spokeo is a search engine specialized in organizing people-related information from phone books, social networks, marketing lists, business sites, and other public sources. Most of this data is publicly available on the Web. 

Facebook security leaks.  If you are on Facebook, Spokeo obtained a lot of information about you as part of a pilot program that you may have inadvertently authorized.  When Facebook's security leaks of almost two months ago emerged, several of my Facebook friends were posting as their status "As of May 3, there is a new privacy setting on Facebook called "Instant Personalization Pilot Program" that shares data with non-Facebook websites. It is automatically set to "Allow." Go to Account > Privacy Settings > Applications and Websites > Instant Personalization, and UNcheck "Allow". Please copy & repost. BTW, ...if your friends don't do this, they will be sharing information about you and me."

Under his status, a friend of my Facebook friend said, "Go to (I think) type your name in the search. Guarantee there is information in there about you most of it coming from Facebook."

Spokeo's slogan is "Not Your Grandma's Phonebook."
Grandma would agree with that!

So I went to  Amazing.  You can type in a name, phone number, or email address and see a sneak preview of what you would see if you bought Spokeo's service.  Pictures (from Facebook, incidentally, that I thought were private), blog posts, partial address, phone number, my age (well they tried), credit information, property ownership, job (not in my case), and much more.  Obviously, not all the information came from Facebook. Some came from public records, blog posts tied to my email account, and other sources.  Anybody with a credit card can go in to and obtain information about you and your family for as little as $2.95 a month.

If you buy the Spokeo service, you may obtain the Spokeo's full record available.  Per the Spokeo website, this information may include full name, ethnicity, marital status, religion, politics, address, home phone, mobile phone, email, profiles, photos, videos, and blog posts.

Note the column on the right that lists the types of information Spokeo compiles about people!
Friends in the year 2010.  A special feature called "Friends" enables you to share your email address book with Spokeo to scan all of your contacts.  This of course means that if your friends are accessing the friends feature on Spokeo, Spokeo is getting your email, which will enable them to compile records on you, even if you are not a Facebook user.  I was shocked that all of this is being compiled and apparently available for public consumption.

The information above is from my blog.  Not a big deal of Spokeo retains it as my blog is public.  My other email addresses had much more personal information.  I opted out of Spokeo for those email addresses.
Identity theft beware.  My biggest concern is not my Facebook pictures or blog posts, but I am concerned about identity theft, and you should be, too.  It was a $54 billion problem in 2009 alone.  I'm uncertain if Facebook had a means of reversing its "sharing" with its partners.  Spokeo's website says their "mirroring technology" reflects updates to your Facebook privacy settings, subject to minimal update timeframes.   

Consider this a suggestion, hint, or warning as you wish: you may want to confirm Spokeo's view of you versus what you have set up on Facebook, even if you don't want to opt out of Spokeo.

Since I did not purchase Spokeo's services, I saw only the free preview of my information, but even that was fairly comprehensive.  There ought to be a few things that you maintain privately "among real friends" such as your mother's maiden name, your birth date, your place of birth, and your address.  When I first joined Facebook, much of that information ended up on my profile.  And somewhere down the line, Facebook shared with Spokeo, which may have cleverly aggregated what you thought was private on Facebook and combined it with public records to create a record about you.  And that scares me. It's just too much information and it's too accessible to anyone who wants to pay.

I know a lot of people say "well it's out there anyway."  True, but many of the databases on the Internet are used for legitimate business purposes such as establishing identity, assets, or credit rating to obtain a loan.  Users must have a legitimate business purpose and databases may be less complete.  Spokeo sells its services as "Quickly uncover hidden photos, videos, and secrets ... scan your email contacts and be shocked by what you find."  This sounds a bit salacious and unsavory.  Just remember, with enough information, someone could apply for credit in your name. 

I had my information removed from Spokeo.  I had to get my three email addresses (family and business, fun and friends, junk) removed from Spokeo.  It is a two step process wherein Spokeo sends an email to the email address to be removed, then I had to confirm.  And then there's my name.  So I put in four information requests. I have typed in my email addresses and name repeatedly to make sure I am off Spokeo's records, but I've read that this can be an ongoing process. 

Oops, I realized I did not remove all my phone numbers (Spokeo says they have additional information about me besides my phone number - grrrrrrrrr).  I'm not done. Yet. And I don't know what to do about my married name or old email addresses such as from AOL, since I quit using AOL about five years ago.

I scaled way back on my Facebook profile.  Now my profile is my name and not a whole lot more.  I fear for people who lay all their information out there for the world to see, even if they may have a profile that is closed to everyone except friends.  My status updates and posts are potentially for public consumption, meaning everyone from my mother to my former coworkers to people I may have met at a social event last week.  This is probably not a bad idea anyway. It seems almost every day I hear about someone getting fired or close for saying inappropriate things on Facebook. 

If I were you ... and I realize I'm not ... I would be quite cautious about letting sleeping dogs lie in this case.  Personal information in the public domain is inevitable in our day, but it's up to you to control it.  One contrarian approach would be to put fake information in your Facebook profile and when you post in blogs.  But then your high school glee club chums will have a much harder reconnecting with you.  In my opinion, a consumer-based, uncontrolled access service like Spokeo opens the door for wholesale identity theft.  Too much information, some of which was accessed from Facebook unknowingly with your permission, may be on file for you.  Although Spokeo's database may have inaccuracies, and reportedly it does, why would you want to take the chance?

Opting out.  Here are the steps to opting out of Spokeo.
1) Find your record in by searching by email, name, or phone number.
2) Copy the link as you will need it later.
3) Go to
4) Complete the form and paste the link of your record, along with other information.
5) Go to your email account.
6) Open the email from Spokeo.
7) Confirm the record deletion.
8) Repeat as needed for additional email accounts, phone numbers, names.

Pictures? This post was long and a little light on pictures.  Sorry.  I hope everyone will at least go check out the free preview of their Spokeo records.  If it saves even one person from identity theft, this post will have been worth it.

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