A Life Laid Bare

16May10

I am not particularly guarded about my online life. My 300 Facebook friends know that New Moon dragged but I COULD NOT STOP WATCHING.  Pictures of my niece, of friends, of nights out, links to silly websites. According to Facebook, I listen to Broken Bells, The XX, Florence + The Machine, Say Hi and Le Tigre.  Of course, I omitted all the embarrassing stuff.

Oops. In one swift ill-thought out move, all my Facebook friends with Spotify accounts could now see that my gym playlist includes Sir Mix-a-Lot. The XX is right next to Paramore. Not even my boyfriend knows that. Unpublishing some of the playlists hopefully neutralised some of the damage, but I suspect this is optimistic – especially now that I am writing this blog post. I will now be known as that person who listens to godawful dance music at the gym.

That was bad enough. Then comes Spokeo, the personal information aggregator from Hell. Spokeo (US only, as far as I can tell) started out life innocently enough by aggregating friends status updates from Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, similar to FriendFeed. Then Spokeo abandoned that tried and replicated tactic in favour of mining the White Pages and other sites for data to amalgamate. Now, Spokeo will happily sell all of the information available about you on the web, whether accurate or not, to anyone for the princely sum of $2.95. This includes full address, telephone number, age and credit rating, to name a few things. Most of this is information that could be acquired by looking at the sources – but that’s generally more effort than most lazy people put into internet stalking. Is $2.95 a fair price for ALL of my personal information in one source? I’m leaning towards no.

The general reaction to Spokeo is revulsion, not least because of the accessibility of personal information. Spokeo proudly proclaims that it can provide data reports for a fraction of the cost of comparable services and, therefore, redefining the way people connect with each other. Is that a good thing? And for what purpose? Spokeo offers none, other than to index and sell to other companies, and it’s often wrong anyway. A cursory glance at the service shows family members still “married” to exes of several years, child-free friends who apparently have children. Most curiously, people younger than 30 are thin on the ground in Spokeo world, despite being the most markedly present on social networking sites.

Not only is this a very obvious leg-up for actual stalkers, but also raises questions about the value of our personal details and privacy. The site seems a prime target for stalkers and crazies as well as marketing firms. I think my personal information collected in one source is worth more than $2.95, but I doubt a marketing company thinks so. Whether it is successful or not depends on how successful old marketing, based on some concrete facts and a lot of assumptions, is compared to the new, smarter breed of targeted marketing used by Google and Facebook.

So what does this mean for this new monster breed of data aggregating sites? Do they continue down the garden path with misleading information? Spokeo likens this method of aggregating to Google Maps taking a snapshot of your house. Google Maps, however, doesn’t have a big label over my house with my name on it. It doesn’t estimate my income bracket and credit rating, proclaim I have one child (I’m don’t), a cat (I do), like to read (I do) and lift weights (I don’t). I’m not sure how valuable incorrect information is, or whether it just distorts the picture of a market. The only thing I can be sure of is that having my details compiled together but on as public a platform as, say, Speakers Corner is absolutely terrifying.

Spokeo

Spotify

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