Spokeo and Privacy

April 6, 2008

I found out about Spokeo from a friend. He was “creeped out” because he recieved a notification email from the service telling him that someone had been searching for him. Naturally he logged and did a search on himself to see how the tool works.

He was shocked to know that his activity on social networking sites could be tracked and that all someone had to do to view that activity was search for the correct email address. He couldn’t envision any use for Spokeo other than “stalking”. This brings up a few concerns for me:

1) Privacy on the internet is complicated:

Many of my fellow hipsters express their identities on the internet–on their blogs, on myspace or facebook, even through AIM profiles and away messages. What few seem to realize is that there’s more of an “all-or-nothing” approach to privacy on the internet than there is in face-to-face communication. It’s perfectly fine to give someone a glimpse into your psyche – but realize that if you do it in your AIM profile everyone can see it. Not just the one person it’s intended for, not even everybody on your buddy list – ANYONE who knows your screen name sees it. Spokeo puts this into action with your facebook account: if your profile is searchable, anyone who searches for you will see your status. And if someone knows your email address, spokeo will find the networking sites you’ve registered for with that email address.

This does not mean your privacy has been compromised – this means you’ve been completely public. To quote Spokeo’s Privacy Page:

Everyone on the Internet, including Spokeo, has the access to your public content. If you don’t want to share them anymore, simply turn those content private. If you don’t remember what content you have posted on the Web, use Spokeo to find them.

If your friends can find you on a social network, they can find you on Spokeo. If your friends cannot see you on a social network, they cannot see you on Spokeo.

Facebook and most blogging agents have options for users to limit what people can see. For example, you can set your facebook profile to be “unfindable” – that is, it won’t come up if someone who’s not already your friend searches you. This “friends-only” approach is a step in the right direction, but there are some times when you want certain friends to know more than others. When it comes to social networking, this is a tricky case. Facebook has its “limited profile” feature, where you can list certain people who only get to see the parts of your profile you want them to see. For example, I limit access to my photos and wall. There are some things I don’t want my twin brother to see or read, you know?

But facebook’s limited profile is insufficient. Unlike Livejournal’s “custom friends groups” options, I cannot create multiple lists and create a different profile view for different persons. There are some people who should see my wall but not my photos. The friends who know me very well should be able to see my contact information, but not others. Unfortunately, It’s an “A or B only” with facebook. When I add a friend and choose the settings they either get to see everything, or what I’ve set on the limited profile list. I can’t have different settings for different friends.

2) Privacy, Entitlement, and Friendship in the digital age:

This brings me to my second concern: people know when you’re limiting access to what they can see. And there’s not yet a clearly established code of ettiquette for social networking. Friendships and relationships can be created, validated, and destroyed through social networking. (This could be another post entirely – but in brief summation: friendships and relationships are considered more official when they are confirmed through facebook, and deleting or de-friending someone from facebook, myspace, or the blogging agent of your choice is considered tantamount to saying “I don’t want to speak to you again.”)

Much as in face to face social situations, people who take precautions to guard their privacy on the internet are often seen by Gen Y-ers as standoffish and somewhat conceited. People get offended when they know they can’t see everything but someone else can. Similarly, they get offended when they know they can’t be seen. One’s placement in a friend’s myspace Top 8 is often considered to indicate that you are “best friends.”–so naturally, someone’s going to get offended if they’re left out of the favorites list. Those who are on the limited end of a limited profile tend to feel the same way–unfavored, with the additional insult that this person is preventing them from getting to know them.

Privacy on the Internet is immensely political.

3) Finally, I want to address my friend’s concern that nothing good can come from Spokeo.

Not only is it a way for you to reconnect with someone via multiple avenues – it’s a way for you to discover social networking tools that you might not use otherwise. And it’s a way to find out more about the person who never puts too much information in one place but is happy to share quite a bit. Maybe they have a very limited facebook profile but prefer to share their photos via a protected flickr account. Maybe they create and share music via iMeem. Yes, spokeo, like any social networking tool, can be overused and abused – but if anything it’s a sensible way to monitor web presence.

My personal philosophy on internet privacy is to keep private anything I wouldn’t want a co-worker, family member, or my boss to see. It’s something to keep in mind while you’re blogging and networking.


2 Responses to “Spokeo and Privacy”

  1. Peter Juan Says:

    Great points here. I certainly agree that an all or nothing approach to restricting content is grossly limiting. And I also believe that when people know they can’t access something, then it totally defeats the purpose of enabling privacy. That’s why i.ph blogs lets users create custom groups, so different people can have different levels of access. Privacy settings are also done on a per post basis, making it even more granular. The blog owner can choose which posts can be seen by whom, regardless f whether these people have i.ph accounts or not. The best part is, the blog recasts itself depending on who’s viewing it, so people with no access permissions won’t even have any idea that there is any hidden content.

  2. uohaa Says:

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