For Sale: Your Secrets – by “Xiyi X”

How much information could a stalker–or future employer–find out about you?

This question is precisely what our project aimed to answer. An increasing number of websites are advertising themselves as “people search engines” (Spokeo), which aggregate personal information on the Internet “for personal security and to inform the decision-making process” (Intelius). Many concerns have been voiced about these sites threatening personal privacy and their potential to harm reputations with false information. We set out to determine exactly how much information we could gather about an average college student, as well as the accuracy and damage potential of the data.

We examined three data aggregation sites–Intelius, Spokeo, and PeopleSmart–which required a fee . The costs ranged from $1.95 for an Intelius People Search Report to a $29.95 PeopleSmart Background Report.

Even for only $1.95, the Intelius People Search Report was a rip-off. The only information on the report was address and possible relatives, and even then, the relatives’ names were wrong. Intelius also had the most difficult information removal policy, requiring faxed state-issued ID, which would take 4 to 6 weeks for removal. The shadiest portion of Intelius, though, occurred when purchasing the People Search Report. Mid-transaction, a page resembling a normal verification page popped up containing this section:

Would you really take the time, mid-transaction, to read this?

But it isn’t a verification page. Entering your e-mail in the box acts as your electronic signature, authorizing Intelius to sign you up for a third-party subscription service (about $24.95/month). The fine print is easy to gloss over, and the link to decline the offer is even easier to miss.

Spokeo, advertised as “not your grandma’s white pages,” sells “in-depth” reports on people using information compiled from the Internet. However, once you use the site, you quickly realize that the information is often inaccurate. It listed our test subject, Cece, as 37 years old! (She’s actually 20.) Most of the information that Spokeo provides can be found within five minutes using a search engine such as Google (with Google Street View)–certainly not worth the price of membership. Simple information such as age, address, and home value are all things that a stalker would know about you before conducting an online search, anyway.

Furthermore, Spokeo has a very interesting privacy policy. On their site, they list the instructions on how to remove your information from the site. These instructions, however, work for removing anyone’s information! We took down the listings of complete strangers without their knowledge and without having to provide any proof of identity whatsoever (Sorry, Robert Matakevich!).

Lies.

Our most expensive purchase, the PeopleSmart Background Report for $29.95, was at least the most accurate report. There were no glaring errors in names, address, or age.  However, it still did not tell us any information which we had not already found via Intelius or Spokeo. The process for editing or removing information was also extremely simplistic, requiring no verification of identity before filling out an online form. All in all, it was extremely disappointing given the hefty price tag.

In addition to purchasing personal reports, we also examined our “online preferences” on eXelate and BlueKai, two data aggregation companies which sell user information (based on tracking cookies) to corporations. Although many of the results we obtained for ourselves were decently accurate, a number of topics listed under our interest profiles seemed entirely irrelevant (i.e. parenting). The good news, though, is that editing information or opting out is extremely straightforward and can be done instantly with a click of the mouse.

Overall, the information from personal data reports was woefully uninteresting–elementary at best, and laughably inaccurate at worst. Data report sites don’t live up to their promises of delivering really personal (or even accurate) information, seeking instead to benefit from naiveté and ignorance. They’re scams. So rest assured: Stalkers and employers gullible enough to buy into these sites will only hurt their wallets, not your reputation.

View the full project Powerpoint here.

— Cece Xie ’13, Emily Yin ’13, Daniel Frascella ’12

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