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Privacy Fears Erupt Over Spokeo

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Spokeo

(Credit: Spokeo.com)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – Some Web users are complaining about privacy concerns over the website Spokeo, which allows users to see satellite photos of people’s homes and other personal information just by typing in a name.

But experts say even if you take your Spokeo profile down, there’s not much you can do about the information being out there.

On its homepage, Spokeo advertises itself as “not your grandma’s phonebook.” It allows users to search by name, e-mail, phone or instant messenger username, for a plethora of personal information – none of it verified, and much of it incorrect.

The Urban Legends Reference website Snopes.com explained Wednesday that Spokeo is one of many sites that aggregates personal information culled by public sources, including Facebook or other social networking pages, blog posts, old-fashioned phone book listings, real estate listings and other data. The sites sell detailed personal information reports to anyone who pays for them, Snopes reported.

Spokeo classifies itself as “a search engine specialized in organizing people-related information,” and points out that most of the data is publicly available on the Web.”

But the fact that data from several sources are aggregated into one place, in an easily searchable database, is enough to make some people uncomfortable.

“This is so scary to me,” read one e-mail quoted in Snopes. “My address along with a picture of my home is showing on this site.”

Most of the personal information listed in Spokeo requires payment to view. But just by searching a name, users can view information including home addresses, high-resolution satellite images of homes, estimated home values, and family members of anyone they want – although there’s no guarantee that the information will be correct.

For one example, a search for one CBS producer’s name showed him as two different people — one at his apartment of the past eight years, the other at his childhood home where his family still resides. The search also misstated several pieces of information about his family’s house.

But Spokeo advertises that paying customers can also see social networking profiles, personal photos and albums, lists of hobbies and interests, estimated income, and “economic health.” Spokeo also has a feature that allows users to scan their e-mail contacts to “uncover surprising facts” about their friends, including photos and videos.

Spokeo does have a privacy policy in which users can request that their listings be removed, but, Snopes point out, such a step is of little use. The underlying information, whether in public records or personal Facebook pages, will still be there, and other data aggregator sites can use the information just as easily.

“In short, removing your personal information from display by Internet aggregators isn’t a one-time deal, but rather more like a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole: You might swat down one aggregator site or two, but more of them will inevitably pop up,” Snopes said.

Snopes also pointed out that the more detailed information available to paying customers on Spokeo searches is also often incorrect, and that trying to take a Spokeo listing down often results in an error message.

The Better Business Bureau says there is no need for a panic over Spokeo. On Wednesday, the BBB of Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Spokane compared the panic over Spokeo to paranoia and fears of “banana spiders hiding under the toilet seat” and “muggers hiding beneath your car.”

“Do realize that since we live in the Information Age, some information is public record, like real estate listings, some government information, and your phone number and address unless they are unlisted,” the BBB said.

The BBB says it’s a good idea to be cautious and watch your Internet image, but public information can’t be made to disappear.

Or, as Michael Arrington wrote in TechCrunch Thursday, “There’s absolutely nothing you can do about Spokeo, so stop whining.”

Adam Harrington, cbschicago.com

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