Online Reputation: What the Search Giants Know About You, Part 1

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We all know that there is a rapidly growing body of information about us on the web. Virtually everything that is knowable about us is now stored in databases somewhere, and the technology for linking this information together is getting frighteningly powerful.

There are now quite a number of companies that sell personal information about all of us. Some are fairly innocuous, such as Spokeo.com, 123People, and WhitePages. Others go pretty deep, such as PeopleFinder, USSearch, and Intelius.

I decided to investigate, using myself as a guinea pig. Here is what I found:

Spokeo did not know me by name, but has several other ways to do a lookup. By personal email address, it knew that I was a member of a flying club a few years ago. My business email address brought up a number of press releases and news articles about my company. By phone number, it knew my ex-wife’s name, the location, size, and value of my house.

123People found a number of pictures of me online, along with those of my various namesakes around the country (a handsome lot, I’m pleased to report). It presented an interesting word cloud, apparently from various websites. It has me associated with PRIVATE WiFi™, Private Communications — and hacking!

Many of the sites provide some information for free, then offer additional information for a fee. Using just my name and city/state, PeopleFinder knows my age, home address, and size of my house. It also knew of two ex-wives, including both their maiden names and married names. For an additional fee, I could have gotten a complete background report.

I bought the “Advanced Background” report from USSearch. If you care to invest $42.85, here are some of the things you can find out about me:

  • Every address that I have lived at, back to the early 1970s, including, in many cases, the name and address of my landlord or current owner.
  • A lot of information on an ex-wife, including previous and current addresses; her brother’s name, age, and address history; the name, age, and phone number of the man she is currently living with; and her mother’s full name, current, and prior addresses (so much for answering the “security” question of mother’s maiden name).
  • Records of my marriage and divorce.
  • The settlement records of an old landlord dispute.
  • Information about an antique wooden boat that I own.
  • My pilot license details.

I was quite surprised by how much information they were able to pull together. The tentacles of data matching against public databases do create a remarkably thorough dossier.

Right to Be Forgotten?

Reuters wrote a story with the interesting title of Internet Privacy and the ‘Right to be Forgotten’. They note that “Europe and the United States have traditionally differed on privacy issues, with the EU taking a stronger regulatory approach.”

For many years, Europe has insisted on an “opt in” approach , which means that businesses cannot re-use any information you provide without your explicit permission. In the U.S., meanwhile, we generally relay on “opt out,” which requires that you take action to prohibit subsequent use.

Now the EU is considering going one step further: giving individuals the explicit right to withdraw information from websites, regardless of how it got there. And they have been very clear that the U.S.-based social networking sites and search engines will be forced to comply with their rules.

As Reuters rather diplomatically says “U.S. officials (are) more mindful of the need to balance entrepreneurship and business demands with data protection.”

What do you think? Which side would you come down? Is it something that we should try to stop, or is it inevitable?

Also look out for Part 2 next Monday, June 27, when I explain what you can do if some of the information you read about yourself is wrong, personally intrusive, or seriously damaging to your reputation.

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Kent Lawson

Kent Lawson is the CEO & Chairman of Private Communications Corporation and creator of its flagship software PRIVATE WiFi. He combined his extensive business and technical experience to develop PRIVATE WiFi in 2010. The software is an easy-to-use Virtual Private Network (VPN) that protects your sensitive personal information whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi network. Follow Kent on Twitter: @KentLawson.