Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Don't blame Spokeo - blame the government

Louis Gray (who maintains an interest in privacy, or the lack thereof) recently shared a post from Spokeo about what Spokeo does. In essence, you can go to the Spokeo site and learn all sorts of supposedly private things about people. And when people happen upon Spokeo, their first inclination is often to shoot the messenger. However, all that Spokeo does is that it "aggregates publicly-accessible information."

Yup, all that information that Spokeo has was originally posted by someone else.

I'll give you an example that I recently encountered. As I have previously mentioned on this blog, my father passed away last month. The funeral home arranged to have his obituary run in several papers, and I recently performed a web search to find some of these obituaries.

But while searching, I ran across an obituary from a site called tributes.com. And this obituary was a little odd. It mentioned his date of birth, his date of death, and then said that my father "was last known to be living in" a particular town. Now that seemed like an odd obituary...until I read the text below it:

Tributes received this obituary from The Social Security Death Index, a public source. No further information other than what is displayed is available.

So tributes.com takes information that the government provides for free, and uses that information for business purposes. For example, if I hadn't known about the death of my dad before encountering tributes.com, I could use tributes.com to send flowers to the family.

The Social Security Death Index is an extensive source for all sorts of information. It can be used for good - for example, to send condolences - or for ill.

And that isn't the only source for public information. If you ever purchase or sell a house, that is a matter of public record. Now California has taken additional steps to protect information - for example, publicly available property tax bills no longer list the street address of the property in question - but it's easy enough to find information elsewhere to work around that little issue.

But one of the largest problems with online information is that it is sometimes incorrect. Spokeo has a listing for me that includes an incorrect address (one that I haven't used this millennium), an incorrect marital status, and other incorrect information. And even the so-called "correct" listing for me is outdated in several instances.

At least my father in law should be pleased with the information that Spokeo has on him. According to Spokeo, my father in law is younger than I am.

Why is this information so bad? Because information provided by the governmental agencies and the private companies isn't always double-checked. And they only collect the information at certain times - the Google Street View trucks don't come by my house every day to take a new picture.

I'll close by repeating my theory about Big Brother. People are afraid that "the government" will combine its resources and use them to track everything about them. However, that assumes that all government agencies and all private businesses will work in concert - and they don't. And if you have any further comments on this, just send them to Post Office Box 1833, Upland, California 91785.
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