Spokeo – Helpful Web App or Cyber-stalking Tool?

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J. Phil is a guest author who maintains the blog scribkin – where code and culture converge. Spokeo_logoHave you heard of Spokeo? Most likely it has heard of you. More specifically, it knows about any occurrence of your email address or other identifying information (like your Myspace profile name) in pretty much any public forum. At its core, it is a RSS information aggregator, which means it digests pretty much anything public and stores it all in a database, ready to be retrieved as needed. Spokeo has been around for a few years now. Wikipedia says they were founded in 1996, and there have been plenty of articles written about the service. In fact, Spokeo itself maintains a page of citations. You can find more links at the end of this article, however I will save you some time by giving you a summary: Spokeo is cool because it lets you discover new information about other people online, but it’s scary because it lets you discover lots of information about other people online. A cuddly porcupine, indeed. Like a porcupine, just deciding to use the service is a prickly issue. This year, several blogs have reported that Spokeo sends out unsolicited email to addresses that are submitted to their database (just search for spokeo spam in Google to find more). I can easily believe this to be true, even though I don’t see anything in the official Spokeo blog about it. The controversy is this: People who use the Spokeo service to find more information about their friends or email contacts unwittingly cause Spokeo to send a scary notification to those very people. People who are minding their own business suddenly get a notification like this one. If you look at the notification email carefully, you will notice that it does not say who caused the email to be generated, just that it was generated. The sword (or quill, perhaps) cuts both ways here:
  • People receiving the email get alarmed because the email at first blush looks like a “stalker warning” of sorts. Warning! Someone is looking up your entire life online!
  • People looking up their friends, once they learn about the email freak out, because if they added their entire circle of friends to Spokeo, it’s becomes rather easy to figure out who did it. Eek, now everyone will think I am stalking them, or pointed the NSA’s black box directly at their email address!
On both counts, I say, relax. You can make a decision about using the service or not using the service based on this information, but the fact of the matter is, Spokeo is still collecting public online information, whether your friends are asking for it or not. Here is what you should take away from this: You may have put stuff on the internet in the past that you may not want there any more. From this perspective, Spokeo is actually helping you. If you are using the service to look up someone else or even yourself, you will see what it knows about you. If you get an email, it is inviting you to share what it knows about you TO you, and remove that information from its database if necessary. Now, where I can point the finger at Spokeo is in two places. First, it never mentions to people using the service that a notice will be sent out to those email addresses that are submitted. It comes as a rude shock. And they might argue that the email does not point the finger back at you, but it doesn’t hold up; because of the aforementioned ‘circle of friends’ argument above, and the fact that they want you to log in to their service to fix it. This is the biggie — they seem to be cynically using their ‘helpful’ notification email to get you to log in, see what is there about yourself, and.. oh! Hmm, what if I put in my ex-boyfriend’s email.. or my boss’s email.. See? Spokeo should have some sort of email-based opt-out if the send an unsolicited email in the first place. Their argument that they are only trying to raise awareness does not hold much water here. spokeo-clipLet me wrap up by saying a few things that are fairly positive about the service. They just had a big visual makeover and their new theme is very easy on the eyes. Also, their interface has user-customizable keyboard accelerators to allow you to navigate through the recent friends’ updates quickly and easily. Just having accelerators at all is a biggie for me.. that’s why I am hooked on Google Reader (but Bloglines has them as well). Finally, you do actually find out new stuff about people you add. Most people forget that they signed up for Friendster in 1999 or Multiply in 2001. And if you are on Myspace, forget about it.. Spokeo knows everything about you. I found some pictures of an ex-boss that I’m sure he would be embarrassed to know are still on the ‘net. You might want to think about that for a minute and see if there any old accounts you need to shut down.
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  • http://www.twitter.com/isle Isle

    Got the scary Spokeo “someone looked up all your shit and is currently stalking you” email recently, checked out Spokeo. Very alarming, but not surprising, social media aggregator, just a matter of time. I did a few tests and found out that adding my email lists for checking did not generate scary emails to all in my list… I would assume that the “someone is stalking you” emails would likely be generated by deliberate personally entered email addy searches, and not imported contact list searches.

    I agree that it is more of an enlightening tool than a scary thing..online, one reaps what you sow, to an extent…and this can help check what you have forgotten you sowed… With several email addys linked together, I was able to check on all my evil deeds and kill some expired accounts.

    Strange how many people have not heard of Spokeo yet.

  • Dallas

    Actually, they send two kinds of emails. They send the “someone is searching for you” from their own domain. The second kind is an “invitation” email which forges the “from” header, like this: http://groups.google.com/group/escaloop/browse_… .

    There is a very confusing process by which the user can trigger mass-mailing their contacts the “invitation” email after a screen that promises that “we will never email your contacts”.

    The “invitation” email is illegal under CAN-SPAM due to the forged header and misleading subject.

  • http://www.scribkin.com J. Phil

    Oh, wow. Yeah, that's blatantly bad behavior. And yet, I can't find a think on Spokeo's blog or other site where they have admitted to or tried to rationalize this behavior.

    Thanks for the update.

  • http://www.scribkin.com J. Phil

    I just noticed something, Corvida. You have a plugin that figures out what the most popular outgoing link is, and as of this comment writing, it is the one pointed to Spokeo!

    I find that hilarious, for some reason.

  • http://shegeeks.net Corvida

    Are you talking about the Disqus widget? I'm not sure how it determines
    popularity at all. Maybe I should email them about that.

  • http://www.scribkin.com J. Phil

    I figured it out earlier.. it's MyBlogLog, it keeps track of the most popular link that people click on.

    As for Disqus, popularity is based on if people use the little arrows next to your icon to rate your comment “up” or “down”. You start out at one but if a bunch of people click the up-arrows on different comments, the number gets bigger.

  • IdoNotes

    I did a good podcast with them a while ago you should take a listen to. They have grown since then and made some mistakes but I still like the service
    http://thesocialnetworker.com/tsn/tsn.nsf/dx/Th

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  • tim128

    Spokeo is nothing. http://www.usprivacyassociates.com can help remove you from over 30 of these type of companies that post your info online. Here's the link to get off spokeo http://www.spokeo.com/privacy

  • Ron K

    I was shocked to learn recently about spokeo for the first time.
    I am very suspicious that big brother is allowing loose internet communications standards (privacy nolonger counts) so big brother can make use of this el cheapo!!
    Secondly most of the profile info they posted on myself and other acquaintances is assumed from their profiling techniques and is totally incorrect, false. This borders on or is slander in my opinion. Wonder what my lawyer would say?
    I can't wait to inform congress about this threat. Whoops, I just said they probably are rolling over in joy over the free demographic info they can conjure up from this spokeo service.
    Where's the National Guard? Help?
    and now disqus, you have my email, too!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/NO-MORE-SPOKEO/113159098694287 NO MORE SPOKEO

    Spokeo's actually a much bigger privacy issue today than it was two years ago, because they're aggregating so much more data. And they're merging it in ways that blatantly violate people's privacy expectations.

    Even if you've never used your real name on a particular social network (common enough on myspace or flickr), Spokeo will use your e-mail address to find your real name on other networks, and then tie your real name to the data that used to be anonymous.

    And to your Amazon wishlist.

    And to your fan pages on facebook.

    And to your photos on myspace and flickr (including photos of your children).

    And to your phone number.

    And so on. And it will not be subject to any of the “block user” options on the social networks that the data is being pulled from. This is a cyberstalker's fantasy. And there's no way to get off the site. (If you try to get them to remove your name using the link tim128 suggests, they'll actually harvest your e-mail. People will no longer be able to search for you for free by using your name, but they'll actually be able to get more data about you by using your e-mail.)

    Harrison Tang himself (the CEO) appears to have had a bit of a stalking problem on Xanga (Check out http://twhman.xanga.com/522201373/almost-done-w… and read the comments responding to his private messages)

    Basically, these guys are beyond creepy or socially inept. They're psychopaths.

    So call your congressman. His home phone number is probably available on the site.