Is Spokeo Crossing the Privacy Line? (7:31)

Posted on by Abby Johnson |

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Have you heard of Spokeo? Although it has been around since 2006, it has been receiving a lot of attention of late. For those who are not familiar with it, Spokeo is a people search engine that allows users to search for peoples’ names, addresses, family members, interests, income, property value, and much more.

With its slogan of “Not your grandma’s white pages,” Spokeo says it collects its information from public sources across the Web such as real estate listings, phone directories, and social networks. The site allows users to search for people based on their names, email addresses, phone numbers, email contacts, and, most recently, through usernames of friends on social networking sites.

Spokeo offers some information free of charge, but just like its competitor Intelius, it charges a monthly premium for more private information.

Not surprisingly, the site has a lot of people outraged, including privacy groups. Dr. Larry Ponemon, the Chairman and Founder of privacy research firm the Ponemon Institute, spoke with WebProNews and said there are problems with Spokeo from both a privacy perspective and from a information ethics perspective.

“We are, basically, powerless in organizations like Spokeo,” he said.

According to him, privacy is being tested with Spokeo since users do not have control over their personal information. However, he points out that it’s also scary since the information that the site uses may be inaccurate. For example, there are often multiple listings for the same person but with different addresses and other information.

Can Spokeo legally expose this information? This is the question that many people are asking, but there are a lot of mixed opinions. The Better Business Bureau has openly defended Spokeo saying that panic is unnecessary. Michael Arrington from TechCrunch has also spoken out about it and said that while it is alarming, there is nothing we can do about it.

Dr. Ponemon said that privacy cases are difficult because harm has to be established. It is a challenge to demonstrate harm on inaccurate information and also since the harmful impact might happen at a later point in time.

“First, the privacy hurdles have to be overcome before I think the legal challenges will end against Spokeo and other companies,” he said.

Spokeo spokesperson Katie Johnson released this statement to us in response to the recent criticism it has been receiving: “As part of our commitment to privacy, Spokeo offers an opt-out feature that is faster and easier to complete than most other people search sites. All that is required of users is an email verification process, not submitting hard copies of driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers, or other forms of identity via fax or mail.”

Although the investigation is still pending, the FTC is looking into Spokeo based on claims that it is allegedly violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Do you think that Spokeo is abusing privacy rights?

Posted in: Dr. Larry Ponemon, Legal, Privacy, Social Media
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