Spokeo–Spooky Advance in Personal Information Search

A few years ago I was talking to a parent’s group at my daughter’s school about the Internet.

This was 2003, so social media hadn’t emerged, but parents were concerned about letting their kids use the Internet.  I led a discussion about what exactly the Internet was, trying to point out some things to be careful of, and also explaining some of the wonderful things the Internet was capable of doing.

I was demonstrating Google on a computer projector, showing how searches worked.  As I finished up I did something just for fun.   I typed in my home phone number into the Google search box to show how Google could produce my name and home address as the top search result.  I thought this was a pretty cool feature.

The room freaked out.

You would have thought I showed them pornography on a Disney site.  OMG!

“What!” one woman exploded.  “Tell me what I have to do to get that information off of there, right now!”

The reason Google was and is capable of producing this information is pretty simple—so  I explained.  In spidering the Internet, Google invariably indexes white pages sites which have all the information in any phone book.  Google can be therefore a big phone book with search capabilities.

This did not mollify the crowd at the parent’s meeting.  Around the early 2000s Google had received a number of complaints about this natural search phenomenon, and had begun allowing people to register to have their name and address blocked on a phone number search.

I thought about this over the weekend as I signed up for a three month trial of Spokeo, or as some have called it Spookeo.

Spokeo connects your name, phone number and address as Google does with white pages, but adds all kinds of other readily available information about you–from property title databases, political donation records, and of course now, social media sites.  It’s not tough to connect Rohn Jay Miller in Minneapolis with my academic records, property tax records and my political donations.  People have been doing this more manually for $49 for the last decade.  But Spokeo promises to add more depth and detail because of all that personal social media stuff we publish about ourselves.  Google plus Facebook and Twitter produces juicier details–or so Spokeo promises.

So I did some searches with Spokeo, starting of course with my own name.

The accuracy of the information was considerably below 50%.  For example, my wife and I sold our house last September and moved our family  to a new place down the street.  Spokeo still lists our old address, and uses the city of Minneapolis tax evaluation as the value of the home.  That’s wrong by a couple of hundred thousand, I promise you.

My wife Claire shows up, along with our ages, birth months and Zodiac signs.  Thankfully while Spokeo shows we have two kids (two daughters) all the information about them is incorrect.  One of them is not named Nicole and the other is not named Ron, as Spokeo would have you believe.

Almost none of the social media information was correct, which surprised me.  How hard would it be to tap into LinkedIn’s API, plus scrape my public profile from Facebook, and toss in some images from Google image search?

Of course my next step with my new Spokeo account was old girlfriends.

This was salaciously interesting, but then I remembered how inaccurate my records were.  So who knew if Gwen Palmer was really living on that big boat tied up in Siesta Key, FL?  I do admit that a wave of creepiness passed through me as I stared down at the 4br 2.5ba split-level home of Carol Supplee (not her married name) from the surprisingly detailed Google Maps satellite photo.  I think the silhouette carrying groceries from the detached garage might have been Carol, but it was hard to see.

This makes me think about our two daughter’s futures, 30 or 40 years from now.  What will be the frameworks and boundaries and laws regarding privacy and ownership of our own personal information?

The Clinton administration rammed through the HIPPA medical records privacy laws in the 1990s, spurred by liberals wanting to protect the identities of those who had become HIV positive from being publicly disclosed.   HIPPA seems to work pretty well.  At least every time I go to a doctor I’ve got to sign a long statement that I’ve read a big document which I make a point of leaving unread on the counter.

Spokeo will have a brief moment of public exposure, and make a little money, but the barrier to building this kind of application is very low.  Every day more information is indexed by Google and other search engines and more information is structured in XML and exposed through APIs.

Google management is probably nervous about this phenomenon.  Enough of this information bricolage goes on inside their algorithms to allow fairly robust Google stalking right now.  The power and the data will just continue to grow exponentially.

By the way, just for a giggle, I typed “Sergy Brin” into Spokeo.

Can I just say that’s kind of a dumpy apartment in Palo Alto he’s living in, I mean for a guy that started Google?  But I’m not surprised one of his hobbies is “shopping from mail order catalogs.”

No word on if he’s a Republican or Democrat, though.  Some things remain secrets, at least for now.

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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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