As more of our social lives, shopping sprees and dating misadventures take place online, we leave behind, purposely or not, a growing supply of personal information.
Marketers, employers, suitors and even thieves and stalkers are piecing together mosaics of who we are. Even when it is accurate, it may not present a pretty picture.
For a glimpse of your mosaic, type your name into Spokeo.com. Prepare to see estimates of your age, home value, marital status, phone number and your home address, even a photo of your front door. Spokeo, one of several services like this online, will encourage you to pay $15 or more, for a full report with details on income, hobbies and online social networks.
Snoops who take the time to troll further online may also find in blog posts or Facebook comments evidence of your political views, health challenges, office tribulations and party indiscretions, any of which could hurt your chances of admission to school, getting or keeping a job or landing a date. Many privacy experts worry that companies will use this data against users, perhaps to deny insurance coverage or assign a higher interest rate on a loan.
The online aggregation of personal data is setting the stage for “a WikiLeaks for your life,” said Michael Fertik, the chief executive of Reputation.com, previously known as ReputationDefender, a company that charges to manage people’s online information and images. “The treasure trove of personal data about each of us is growing to unanticipated levels, and the leak of huge portions of those data can be personally devastating,” he said.
If you want to try to manage privacy, the obvious first place to start is with the search engines Google, Bing and Yahoo, exactly where other people will most likely go to check you out. Run keyword searches of your name, address, phone numbers and other identifying data and see what turns up. Don’t stop after the first few pages of search results. While they will be the most influential, the embarrassing or forgotten tidbits can show up on page six and beyond, warns Andy Beal, co-author of “Radically Transparent,” a book about monitoring and managing online reputations, and a consultant who says he has helped people get information removed from the Web.
Also look for online accounts you opened but don’t use anymore, especially on social networks or dating sites where you would have provided extensive personal information. Not only can people dig up details, as the Mashable blog recently did when it posted what appeared to be information about the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s online dating life, but the site you entrusted data to could change its privacy practices or be acquired by a company with different policies.
If you’re daunted by this research job, there are companies willing to do the work for you. The privacy software start-up Abine charges $99 a year for quarterly reports detailing the information available about you online.
Abine found that all six major people databases — 123people.com, MyLife.com, Spokeo, US Search, WhitePages and PeopleFinder.com — have dossiers on me. All have my home address, which doesn’t thrill me, and three list some of my relatives. Abine also dug up a funny privacy rant I posted on a technical help forum a few years ago. Otherwise, there wasn’t much of interest. Apparently, I have displayed excellent control of my online image and am very well liked, said Sarah Paradisi, the Abine employee who compiled my report. Nice to know.
The harder part is masking the information. It’s often possible to remove information yourself, though it will probably be a time consuming ordeal.
First, delete anything too valuable on social networks like Facebook. A full birth date or home address can be used to steal your identity. Personal details can be cloaked using privacy settings that make them available only to friends. Also remove or deactivate social networking accounts you no longer use.
If someone else posted information you want removed, you’ll have to reach out to that person. A friend on Facebook may agree to delete an unflattering photo of you. But getting an online publisher or a data broker — a company that buys data from other companies and then sells it to companies that collect it — to remove content, especially if it’s truthful and legal, can be tricky. Mr. Beal says asking nicely and explaining why often works.
Many data brokers will let you opt out of their databases, though you will have to contact each one individually. “You may have to wait as long as 30 days for information to come down. And they don’t guarantee it will come down forever,” warns Amber N. Yoo, a spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which has a list of 140 brokers. “It’s a messy and complicated problem.”
Information that is taken down should drop out of the search engines within a few weeks. If it doesn’t, submit a request for it to be removed. Google provides instructions, but without action from the site owner, Google rarely removes content that’s not illegal.
All this can be a headache. A friend who faced a stalker last summer spent two weeks trying to get her home address removed from four Web sites and search engines. The sites cooperated, but, she said, “there is still a ghost presence on Google,” even though she sent it multiple removal requests. Google said its search engine reflected content that was available on the Web.
Indeed, it appears her address was not entirely purged from one of the sites. She finally gave up after finding her entire address history on a people search site that was charging $2 to see it. It was clear “this whole effort on my part was futile,” she said. Many sites, including Google and news outlets, are in the information business and may be unwilling to remove it, especially if it’s truthful. If they won’t act, experts suggest creating more good content about yourself, like starting a LinkedIn profile and a personal blog, to push down the bad to the third or fourth search results screen where few people bother to look. If the content is defamatory — both false and damaging — or otherwise illegal, Mr. Beal recommends hiring a lawyer.
Pros can help consumers cope. The best known is Reputation.com, which charges $99 a year for its MyPrivacy service to identify, remove and keep your information off the Web and out of commercial databases. It also offers technology to stop tracking and data collection using cookies, which can help prevent more data from getting out.
Abine, which also makes the free anticookie software Taco, sells an à la carte service called DeleteMe for removing specific pieces of content. Removing customer information from 16 of the top online databases costs $75, for instance, while removing specific search-engine results, YouTube videos and Web content is $10 to $50 an entry.
“Very few people would bother” jumping through such hoops on their own, said Eugene Kuznetsov, chairman of Abine. “It’s purposely made difficult for a person with a full-time job and other things to do.”
Which is exactly what the snoops are counting on.
April 13, 2011