It is Absolutely Critical that you Understand YOU Are the Digital World’s Currency

October 15, 2011

In order to truly be a “free” website the provider cannot charge you fees, collect your information to sell, rent, lease, or share, or put advertising in front of you. Needless to say, there are very few truly free websites; most that are truly free are government, institutional, school, or non-profit websites, though even many of these types of organizations advertise and sell consumer information.

The way most ‘free’ services make money is not by selling advertising. What they sell is access to you, and information about you to advertisers, marketers and researchers, and others.

Your information is the commodity that drives the internet economy. It is collected through your online actions and the information you share, as well as through the exposure of your information by others.

Every piece of information you post, and every action you take online has value to some company or someone. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This trade in information lets you use the websites without paying money for your access. Your information helps companies provide you ads that are more targeted to your interests. It helps researchers and companies know what kind of products to design, and so on.

If you read a website’s terms and conditions you should be able to see just what information is being collected and how it is shared, though many companies make it very difficult to understand the full scope of their use of your information.

In addition to the information the hosting site is collecting and monetizing, an entire new industry has been created just to collect all the information posted by you or about you on any site – including government sites – to sell, rent, share, etc. to any interested party – see my blog Civil Rights Get Trampled in Internet Background Checks to learn more on this particular aspect.

And the data collection and reuse does not end with the hosting company or data collection companies. Your information is also collected and used by recruiters to make their hiring or enrollment decisions, potential dates or friends, by journalists interested in interviewing you. It’s searched by charitable organizations that are looking for sympathetic individuals to ask for charitable donations. And your information is collected and used and by far less pleasant people who want to use the information for things like bullying, cyberstalking, identity theft, home robberies, and other crimes.

To really understand your digital value and how this may have consequences far beyond those you feel comfortable with, let’s look at an example.

“Jenny” is 65. She loves using the internet to research information and stay in touch with friends and family. She’s on Twitter with friends, on Facebook with her grandchildren, and on a social networking site for seniors with her interests.

In Jenny’s profile she provides her full name, age, and location. She’s included a short line or two about her interests – chamber orchestra music, gardening, wine and photography. She’s taken a couple of online quizzes of her likes and dislikes which makes it easier for new people to see if they have something in common with her.

In one blog post she notes that she’s fed up with the democratic agenda. In another she talks about her grandkids that come to her house twice a week after school.  She complains that her knees and back hurt twice a week – on the days after her grandkids are over. And she says she hates exercising as much as she ever did, but that it’s even harder to get motivated since her mastectomy.

She tweets from the same doughnut shop every morning where she meets up with friends. On her senior site she joins a wine aficionado group and slyly acknowledges that while she only has one glass of wine a day – she frequently refills that glass several times over!

The photos Jenny has posted are of grandkids, her dog and nature shots.  There’s nothing embarrassing in what she’s posted, she wasn’t mean to anyone, but she doesn’t really understand the far reaching ramifications of what she posts.

How do others use this information?

The web service companies she uses collect this information – as well as information about the website she was on before she came to their site (ah, she banks at Chase) and the website she navigates to when she leaves – (oh, she went to the appointment scheduling page of a doctor in the ABC medical practice). They collect they type of computer/phone being used (wow, that’s an old HP!), it’s operating system, IP address, location, etc.

The web service companies are likely to cross tab this information with other information collected by data aggregators from government websites like Jenny her birth certificate – parents’ names, place of birth, date of birth, which when combined with records where Jenny has entered the last 4 digits of her social security number, provides her whole SSN – see my blog Kids and Financial ID Theft; a Growing Issue to learn how SSN’s are deconstructed.

Data aggregators have also collected the birth certificates of her children and grandchildren, her voter record, criminal record (clean), driving record (two speeding tickets in past 18 months). They’ve also gathered information on her deceased husband, what he did for a living (and her projected retirement funds), and information about her home, and previous properties she’s owned.

Crawling the web, data aggregators also see where she’s donated to charities, what her friends are saying about her, what information is discoverable through her photos, and the vehicles she has registered (one car, one boat).

And so on.

What surprises Jenny is that when she chooses to switch auto and boat insurers, she’s denied because of her potential drinking problem, which combined with her speeding tickets could be an expensive mess for the insurance company. She is also denied when she tries to purchase some life insurance – anyone who eats doughnuts every morning, hates to exercise and has already had cancer isn’t seen as a good risk.

Donation requests from music organizations, and catalogs from gardening, and pet supplies companies start showing up on a whole slew of websites Jenny visits online – and more arrive in her mailbox.

Her granddaughter discovers she will have to pay more for medical coverage because the insurance company learned through Jenny’s posts that breast cancer runs in the family.

Jenny falls for an ID theft scam that looked like a request for information from her doctor’s office asking her to reconfirm her billing and insurance data for their records.

To make matters worse, Jenny came home last week after her daily doughnut shop meet up, to find her home had been broken into. All of her photography equipment was stolen.

Once Jenny recognized how information she posted was affecting her, and her family members, she immediately took down some of her posts. Unfortunately, the data aggregators, and web service companies still have their data sets, so the damage is permanent.

If you take this scenario, and expand it to all the communications, contacts, and digital data collected about you, you’ll begin to see the magnitude of the financial model behind web services and data aggregators.

I am frequently asked why internet service companies don’t do a better job in giving their customers what they want. The answer to this is simple; they are giving their customers what they want – and what they want is your data.

In short, while you are the consumer of a websites services, you are not the service’s customers – those are companies paying to get access to you and your information.

A great illustration of this concept was created by the people behind Geek and Poke, and though the company targeted in the cartoon is Facebook, the concept applies to every other web service or product that makes their money behind the scenes.

As you provide information consider how it is being sold, bought, or simply taken and make sure you’re okay with potential outcomes now and over time.

Learn more about the commodity model in this blog When it Comes to Online Ad Tracking, You Can Opt out Any Time You’d Like – But Can You Ever Leave?

Note: does not collect, trade, sell, or use any information about our readers, nor do we accept any advertising on our site. The occasional ad that does land on our pages is NOT associated with us in any way.



Your Information IS Displayed on Spokeo – Here’s How to Remove It

June 4, 2011

Spokeo is a search engine that is specifically designed to collect YOUR information to make public. My frustration with Spokeo and other data aggregators this is that they do not ask your permission to expose your information nor notify you of their actions. They just happily make money by placing you at risk.

Spokeo has been around for several years, so why am I writing this now? The short answer is that I got a Google alert informing me of the data so it just recently pissed me off.  I tested the service when it was first getting underway and but then the data was pretty sparse.  Now you’ll be uncomfortable about what they’ve collected – and display about you.

To start go to Spokeo, and enter your (or someone else’s) name, phone number (cell or home phone), email alias,  or user name.

The ‘top level’ information is free, you pay to see more info, and/or they make money by advertising a company that will help you keep your information off sites like Spokeo. But within that top level FREE information you learn quite a bit about the person you are looking up including:

Age Full name (with middle initials) Marital status Address (including Google Earth View) Gender
Religious affiliation Educational status Who else lives in your home Ethnic background Horoscope sign
Phone number (even ‘private’ numbers and cell  numbers) Whether you own a  home, and the home’s worth Economic and wealth levels Lifestyle and Interests (like: loves reading, has children, enjoys shopping, subscribes to magazines. Neighborhood info like cost of homes, average incomes, ethnic and age profile,
Social networks participated in Publicly posted photos Email address Political affiliation Occupation

In their own words, this is what the company says they’re about (italics added):

Spokeo is a search engine specialized in aggregating and organizing vast quantities of people-related information from a large variety of public sources. The public data is amassed with lightning speed, and presented almost instantly in an integrated, coherent, and easy-to-follow format.

While an individual could on their own, for example, potentially locate a person’s phone number or address by searching phone books, then redirect their search to a county tax assessor’s office to determine a home’s value, they would have to conduct literally hundreds of searches to discover all of the information available through only a single search on Spokeo.

Spokeo’s unique and powerful algorithms can swiftly navigate, sift through, and collect multitudes of scattered data that are spread across hundreds of locations, and synthesize that information in one convenient summary, delivering the most comprehensive snapshot of people-related, public data offered online to date. The search results represent an unparalleled mosaic of the vast stockpiles of public information accessible, and can offer invaluable insight into both the individual being searched, as well as the different types of information published.

When it comes to locating people-related information, Spokeo’s powerful search and organization technology far surpasses that of conventional search engines. That is because Spokeo’s specialized web crawlers can penetrate lesser accessed, content-rich areas of the web, collectively known as the “deepnet which many general-purpose search engines cannot. The “deepnet” is home to vast and largely untapped, dynamically-generated sites. And, since the majority of people-related public records are frequently stored on these types of sites rather than on web pages, Spokeo has a distinctive advantage over traditional search engines to which these rich stockpiles of data remain out of reach.

In other words, Spokeo exposes far more information about you than even Google exposes. Without your consent. Without your knowledge.

If you want to know more about someone, you can pay a monthly fee to dig deeper.

To protect themselves in case this information is  used for malicious purposes – like the wife beater trying to find where his ex-wife has moved to get away from the abuse – the site has a clause in their Terms of Use that says you may not use or any information acquired from  to engage in activities that would violate applicable local, state, national or international law, or any regulations having the force of law, including the laws, regulations, and ordinances of any jurisdiction from which You access I’ll just bet this is a huge deterrent to the stalker, and a real comfort for those at risk for harm.

So how do you remove your information from Spokeo’s search results?

You’ll notice in the first Spokeo graphic in this article, on the bottom of the page they have a section called Protecting Your Online Identity, and that it contains their justification that boils down to… everyone else has your info, all we do is collect it…as well as a product pitch to pay to be protected. “All of the information that appears on Spokeo is publicly available and therefore may appear on other sites. To protect your online identity you can use a service like Reputation to manage your publicly available information.” Think about it, they get to make money off exposing you, while you have to pay to protect it. That’s just wrong.

If you’re still determined to have your information removed (and you should be) they have the following privacy statement and instructions for removing yourself:

While our search results show only publicly-accessible information gathered from hundreds of public sources, such as phone books, marketing surveys, business sites and more, we understand that you are concerned about the information shown our search results, and allow all users to opt out. You can do so by clicking on the Privacy link located at the bottom of the page which will take you here:

Removing Search Results

  1. Locate the search result you want removed. For name search results, click on the listing you want removed.
  2. Copy the URL from your browser’s address bar.
  3. Go to
  4. Paste the URL.
  5. Provide your email address (required to complete the verification process).
  6. Type in the Captcha Code exactly as you see it.
  7. Check your Inbox for the confirmation email, and click on the link to complete removal process.
  8. Once you click on the link, be sure you see the following message:

Once you’ve removed your information: 

  • Put a reminder on your calendar for a month from now, and check again to see if your information remains off the service.
  • Tell your friends
  • Contact your elected officials and demand better privacy regulation – including better privacy over your property records.
  • Start requesting additional sites take down your information. For example, have views of your home removed from Google’s Street View (see my blog How to Remove Images of Your Home from Google’s Street View), remove information from White Pages, and so on.


FTC Says PrivacyLock’s Data Protection Claims Deceptive; Company to Refund Users

October 10, 2010

US Search, Inc., the company behind PrivacyLock, is an online data broker that compiles public records and sells data about consumers to the public. The records may contain not only names, addresses and phone numbers, but also information such as aliases, marriages and divorces, bankruptcies, neighbors, associates, criminal records, and home values. US Search offered customers a variety of search services, including “People Search,” “Background Check,” Real Estate Reports,” and “Criminal Records/Court Records Searches.” It also offered a “Reverse Lookup” service that can return the name of an individual associated with a particular phone number or property address.

The company’s PrivacyLock service promised consumers that it would block others from seeing their personal information, but according to the FTC complaint, these claims were false. The agency alleged that since June of 2009, the PrivacyLock Service:

  • did not block consumers’ names from showing up as an associate of someone else in a search for the other person’s name;
  • did not block consumers’ information from appearing in a “reverse search” of their phone number or address, or in a search of their address in real estate records;
  • did not work if the consumer changed addresses, thereby generating new records that would not be subject to the PrivacyLock; and did not work if the consumer had multiple records – for example “John Smith” and “John T. Smith.”

The settlement bars US Search, Inc. and US Search, LLC from misrepresenting the effectiveness of their PrivacyLock Service or any other service they offer that will allow consumers to remove information about themselves from search results, websites, and advertisements. The settlement order also requires that they disclose any limitations on such services, and that they fully refund 5,000 consumers who paid $10 each for the service.

This is the latest in a series of FTC cases challenging companies’ failure to honor their privacy pledges, and we need the watchdog functionality that the FTC and organizations like the World Privacy Forum, who assisted in bringing this case forward, represent.