In recent history, we have seen a plethora of companies arise based on the aggregation and selling of personal information. Spokeo, ChoicePoint, Intellius, ZabaSearch, Acxiom are just a few. Spokeo, the most recent one however, provides the most information for free, and the cheapest price if you do decide to pay. The concern is that since all of these sites use essentially the same underlying information, there is no way for the user to prevent dissemination. This has led to a number of cries for congressional restriction. A good start might be to extend the Fair Credit Reporting Act to other kinds of data collection and sale.
In the meantime, what does this mean for society? Are we going to undergo a privacy based cultural revolution? I do not think this will happen anytime soon. Currently, the information available on the websites is horribly inaccurate. Generally, you only know if the person you’ve found is correct based on name and address, and many people are not searchable. Once you have found the correct person, further information is generally not helpful. Spokeo says my father, the only family member who shows up, as having several interests and lifestyle facts, “has children” and “enjoys entertainment.” Now I wonder who doesn’t enjoy entertainment. The rest, while inaccurate, do reveal the potential for extensive information: the only reason I can think of for them to suspect my Dad enjoys home decorating and home improvement is the time we spent remodeling, which was thoroughly not enjoyed by anyone at all. Does that mean that Spokeo has some way of knowing what we are buying? It is not getting Dad’s interesting from linked facebook pages, though I don’t doubt website will soon be mining that, so where is it coming from? Spokeo hasn’t disclosed its sources, so it will be interesting to find out. Spokeo also claims my Dad is not intersted in Politics, when in actuality he votes in and follows every election. He does not run a home business as advertised. There are also personality descriptions like “self-driven,” which, without knowing the sources, and given the general inaccuracy, seem dubious.
I haven’t found any sites or testimonials claiming these aggregators are particularly useful or accurate. Given that, it seems hard to believe they represent a real disruption. Even if they are somewhat right, what good is that to a stranger, who cannot tell whether a particular fact goes in the wrong category or the right one? It seems to me that if privacy deteriorates for the majority, it will have nothing to do with people invading it, but rather information being freely disclosed, or allowed to be easily accessed. The current generation is growing more accustomed to sharing everything with everyone. This class in general knows more about facebook and internet privacy than a few handfuls of people. Yet how many of us keep facebook? More than that, how many people keep “likeing,” things, and forming public “connections,” which describe ourselves and our tastes? If everyone is going to keep doing this, then one of two things will happen: people will either get used to presenting their “public face,” on the internet, or we will learn not to care so much whether another’s interests (supposed, self disclosed, reported, whatever) disagree with our own. The inaccuracy of current databases will contribute to a distrust and dismissal of information found online. When it does get more accurate, we will be so used to not caring that we won’t start.
There have been a number of criminal investigation based on wrong information, where it is especially dangerous in law enforcement. Governments should not be trusting these sites to do their investigation for them, and rather than pass laws mandating higher accountability the solution is for criminal investigations to be investigatory rather than a matter of buying the information. It is and should be the responsibility of the police to find and apprehend the correct person. If we do pass laws mandating that information databases be more transparent and correct, this will hasten the future in which we are more tolerant. but there is no sign of this happening amongst the current crises.
Lastly, I leave you with an illustrative graphic of the progression in disclosure. How long before other websites share information like facebook does, or are all connected, or these stop being the default settings and become the only one? Will we really give up our social networks?