|As Online Search Services Deepen, Privacy Concerns Rise
by Jessica E. Vascellaro | March 16, 2007 | PDF
Juliet LaVia of Burbank, Calif., recently got a call from someone named John whose voice she couldn’t place. After an awkward silence, she learned he was a college acquaintance from some 15 years ago who said he found her home phone number online. “I was wondering: Who is this guy and why is he being so friendly,” says Ms. LaVia, 37 years old. “It was shocking.”
Since the dawn of the Internet, it’s been possible to plug a name into a search engine to see what turns up. And for years, background-checking services have sold expensive online services for looking up personal information such as criminal records, marriage records, addresses and phone numbers.
But now, directory companies and several start-ups are offering new people-search services that are more comprehensive and useful than the classic Google search at a fraction or none of the cost of a traditional background check.
The results are drawn from a wider variety of sources, moving beyond paid public-records databases and extracting information and even photographs from social-networking sites, blogs and random Web pages. This means it is now possible to find all sorts of revealing details — true or not — about anyone online, raising red flags with privacy advocates who worry the services could be exploited by identity thieves or stalkers.
Popular directory site WhitePages.com Inc. recently partnered with professional search site Zoom Information Inc. to pull up information free — like where someone works, current and previous job titles and boards or other organizations they are members of. The site also recently launched an email search service that includes 36 million email addresses, compiled from third-party opt-in email lists. The service, which will send an email to a person but conceal the address until the recipient responds, currently costs $10 to email three addresses but will be moving to single email pricing at the end of the month. Todd Condie of Logan, Utah, used the service to reunite with an old friend whom he had been searching for online more than two years. “I was pretty skeptical,” says Mr. Condie, a 37-year-old teacher, whose friend responded to his message within a few days. “Now, we exchanged phone numbers and talk all the time.”
Spock Networks Inc.’s Spock.com will pull up pictures, occupations, interests and other information about people free when it is launched in the next several months. It finds the information by crawling the Web, particularly pages like blogs and social-networking profiles, and will lump its findings into a summarized profile for each of the some 100 million people it says are in its index.
Other sites are specializing in searching the profiles already out there. A new people-search engine on Wink.com of Wink Technologies Inc. searches 150 million profiles from several leading social-networking sites from LinkedIn Corp. to MySpace, owned by News Corp., to find people by name and screen name and facts in their profiles like school, location and interests. Users can search for people by place, interest or even age. Within months it plans to begin searching for people among blogs, photos and general Web pages too.
The ability to mine that information is raising some privacy concerns. Some experts worry that easy-to-use search engines that readily pull up even seemingly innocuous information like a person’s hometown and hobbies help identity thieves or online stalkers.
“It is startling how much information is out there,” says Kathleen Pierz, managing partner of the Pierz Group of Clarkston, Mich. “Nefarious things can be done with that data in the hands of clever and messed-up people.”
The new services stress that they aren’t searching for any information that hasn’t already been made public. Details from profiles that users designate as private on sites like MySpace won’t appear in Wink.com, for instance. And they are adopting additional privacy measures. WhitePages.com sends an email to everyone whose email it has collected, allowing them to opt-out of having the address included in their database. Spock.com says it will drop results from its index if asked to do by a concerned user.
The services also allow and encourage users to correct errors and enhance the results themselves. ZoomInfo.com, which searches Web pages, press releases and other sources for professional and organization information about individuals, allows users who verify their identities with a current email or credit card to log into the site to add additional work history, pictures and interests, and to remove data they can prove is incorrect.
However, drawing their information from social networks and blogs, the services still have a fair share of misinformation and inaccuracies. They can’t generally weed out lies individuals have posted about themselves, for instance, and often pull up multiple listings for the same person, some of which may be out of date.
Americans conduct more than seven billion Internet searches a month, some billion or so of those about other people — from boyfriends to Britney Spears. But the process is often futile, pulling up obscure facts like high-school sports statistics when what the searcher is really seeking is where the person works, lives or a way to contact them.
When Jim Murphy was looking for a business contact’s email address earlier this month, he typed various versions of the colleague’s name into Google but came up empty-handed. “It was like searching for a needle in a haystack,” says Mr. Murphy, 41, of Columbia, S.C., who operates an entertainment Web site. “I finally had to break down and call someone to ask for it.”
The new online background services are developing ways to better solve common back-end technology problems like how to differentiate between two people who share the same name, using techniques like cross-checking information from multiple sources before they publish it in their search results. They have a broader range of sources to work with as well. As tens of millions of Americans of all ages join networks and groups online, the information is practically falling into their laps.