Attempts to Escape the Clutches of Online Data Aggregators
There's a new crowd of web sharks on the prowl: they are effective, they are legal, and they want your data. Not only that, but they want your data — including some very personal stuff — to be available to anyone who asks — or pays.
They are called data aggregators. These web businesses, with names like Spokeo, Zabasearch, and Intelius, use a search protocol broadly known as deep web crawling to extract information about you from a wide variety of sources including: government census data, social network sites, personal web sites, directories, surveys, business lists and real estate data. All of this information is publicly available. Aggregators don't create data, they mine it.
Their rise, which began around 2004, has more recently spawned a new data service niche to, supposedly, protect your online privacy. Companies like Reputation Defender have gone mainstream to advertise, "Take Control of Your Online Identity."
Reputation Defender does that in a couple of ways. First, they counter negative comments about you or your business with positive ones that they claim are optimized for SEO dominance in Google listings. The second way they claim to protect your privacy is to scrub the web of unwanted personal data references. This they propose to accomplish by providing you with a search engine dashboard to monitor personal data disclosures. (Yes, you have to do it yourself.) Once you find something, which presumably occurs with great regularity, you ask Reputation Defender to scrub the data for you.
I was curious as to how they did this so I called Reputation Defender and asked the question: "Do you remove primary source data from the web or do you just remove it from the aggregator sites?"
The call center representative responded, "You know, that's a difficult question. Let me put you on hold for one second and I'll ask." He put me on hold for about two minutes before returning to answer, "We don't necessarily remove it from the source, we remove from the aggregators like you mentioned, like Intelius and things like that. But we will continue to remove that information throughout the year, throughout the time you pay for. That's how it works."
The cost? One hundred dollars a year.
So I became curious as to just how difficult it was to remove this data myself and resolved to attempt the removal, cutting out the middleman and his hundred dollars a year in the process.
Here are a few sites I selected for my experiment:
- PeopleSearch Pro
The sites, it would seem, are proliferating like Milfoil in a Minnesota lake, so if I were to check back next quarter, I would not be surprised to find many more.
I had heard that Spokeo was a particularly impressive site, so I went there first. The personal data is indeed impressive; we'll get to that in a minute. Another button caught my eye, right off. It read: "Control Your Identity — Take Control Now." Upon clicking, I was taken to a page that read, "Monitor and control your public information with IdentityForce™ protection."
That's right. The same site that was causing me all this angst was also selling the solution — a solution just like Reputation Defender! I was immediately transported back to Econ 101. The way to riches in America is to create a perceived problem and solve it. Like yellow teeth and Pepsodent. Or wrinkled brows and Botox. But Spokeo has taken this one step further. They have created an actual problem and the simultaneous solution. This is like a spammer selling a no-spam solution.
Interestingly, the data is not guaranteed to be 100% accurate. To your supposed benefit, however, according to Spokeo, "The data provided to you by Spokeo may not be used as a factor in establishing a consumer's eligibility for credit, insurance, employment purposes, or for any other purpose authorized under the FCRA." But what's to stop someone from using this data for a prohibited purpose?
So what did I find? At Spokeo, I found the quantity of aggregated data about me was, well, startling. They had my address, my birth date, the names and ages of my kids, my home phone, my wife's name, photos, a photo of my house, a flattering assessment of my real estate worth, assorted photos, and much, much, more, as they say in the biz. Not only that, but for just $2.95 a month for a year, they promised far more detailed information including estimates of my net worth and who knows what else.
I resolved to get rid of it all, just like Reputation Defender promised for only $100 a year. For MyLife, at least, the task was surprisingly easy — almost pleasant! The cheerful voice at the other end of the line asked a few questions to verify my stated identity (in truth, I could have been anybody, but then, why would anyone else care) and, poof, it was done.
But then, this is hardly surprising if you figure their business model is to list the information only to take it down — for a price.
At MyLife, which encourages you to become a member so you can see who is searching you, the process was even better, over the phone, at 800-704-1900. Just like Spokeo, after one working day it was gone.
After that, things got stickier. At PeopleSearchPro, I had to formally accept their Opt-Out Policy, which is rife with caveats and disclaimers, before I could opt out online. The additional information related to this policy was some seven pages long. The opt-out term is for only five years. They won't allow a company like Reputation Defenders to act on my behalf. And so far, my data is not gone.
We value your privacy and, upon request, can block your records from being shown on peoplefinders.com from databases we control. We are unable to remove you from databases operated by third parties. To do so, you should contact us by writing a letter, signed by you (we do not accept any unsigned requests or substitute service), giving us your:
Aliases and A.K.A.'s
Complete current address
Date of Birth - including month, day, and year
Additionally, for best results, please include the records that you wish to have suppressed by providing former addresses going back 20 years [italics mine]
Please send this letter to:
1821 Q Street
Sacramento, CA 95811
Intelius and Zabasearch share a unique, and onerous, process for data exclusion. In fact, they share the same fax number to which you must submit your request! And what a request it is. You must supply them with the variant forms of your name you want erased together with a photocopy of your driver's license with the photo and DL number blacked out. That still gives them your height, weight, eye color, current address, and signature. (If you don't have a driver's license you may substitute an official state ID card.) Fax this to 425-974-6194.
At Radaris.com, which also offers the dreaded fax option:
You can scan your ID and email it to us along with your written request and your contact information to profile-remove @ radaris.com. Changes may take up to six weeks to implement and are only permanent if the information is also corrected (or deleted) at the original source. Without such a correction, Radaris cannot guarantee that a deletion or correction is permanent.
Got that? It is not permanent — and that doesn't just apply to Radaris. Which is why this all works so well for the Reputation Defender business model of infinite scrubbing, as long as you keep paying your money every year — and as long as you continue to monitor your own freaking "Dashboard."
Finally, the rankings, using a five-point system, where one is the lowest, slowest, meanest, most anti-consumer mentality around, and five conveys ease and civility:
Personally, I would bet that MyLife and Spokeo would be tempted to downgrade their consumer service upon viewing the results. Moreover, who knows how many other companies like this there are on the web — and how many will pop up tomorrow.
To be sure, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to some of this stuff. If you put data about your kids on a Facebook page that is accessible to the public, expect it to turn up here, with photos. But the trend goes beyond that. I looked up the editor-in-chief of an online media company with a common name. It took me 15 seconds to locate her on Spokeo, and in a few more seconds I had her home address and phone number, a photo of her street, her husband's name, and the promise that for $2.95 I could get more info on her kids and who knows what else. And this is a person who regularly appears on television taking on controversial topics. Online aggregators allow hate mail to take a giant leap forward.
Is this really how we want to live our data lives online?
Feel free to take a shot at clearing your own data, but don't get your hopes up. And don't get your hopes up about services that promise to protect you for a fee. My advice? Play your cards a little closer to your chest and pray for regulation to ease removal of private data online.
This is a guest post by Steve Klingaman, a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer living in Minneapolis. Read more by Steve: