As we slowly put more and more pieces of ourselves online, specialized search engines are making it easier than ever to pull them together into a highly detailed (and potentially invasive) profile of our virtual lives.
In our story "People Search Engines: They Know Your Dark Secrets...And Tell Anyone," we investigated the reality that these new social search engines--which include CVGadget, Pipl, Rapleaf, and Spokeo--can readily collect a mountain of personal details about you that you might prefer stay hidden (or at least widely dispersed) online.
Test requests that we entered at these sites uncovered random details about co-workers' and acquaintances' college roommates and boyfriends from the 1980s, political donations, shopping preferences and musical tastes. Fortunately, you can take steps to limit the information these sites may collect.
One way to grab control is to turn the tables and use the new services to search for information on yourself.
"You can come in and sign up and see all the things that we found about you," says Rapleaf's Joel Jewitt.
Once you know what kind of information is out there, you can decide whether to try to remove it. If you decide that you do, here are some options to consider:
1. Rapleaf offers the option to opt out of its services.
By entering your e-mail address on this Rapleaf page, you can have your data permanently deleted from Rapleaf's database. There's no charge, and once you respond to Rapleaf's confirmation message, your information won't appear in the company's reports ever again.
2. Many other services, Spokeo included, update their caches based on your external settings.
In contrast to Rapleaf's opt-out method, Spokeo and many of the other services work the way a standard search engine does: If the content disappears from the Web, it also disappears from the search results. That means you need to visit the individual sites connected to your e-mail address and adjust the privacy settings within each one. In the case of Spokeo, the info will stop showing up in searches within about a week of your making the changes.
3. Most well-known sites give you the option of making your data private. It just might not be obvious.
People search engines glean their material about you from many well-known sites,including Amazon.com, social networking sites such as Facebook, and music sites such as Pandora.
You'll usually need to go within each individual site's account configuration pages and look for the privacy options to adjust to suit your comfort level.
Here are some places to visit:
- Amazon: Wish Lists are made public by default. To change that setting, go to this page and select the option to sign in. You can then view any Wish Lists associated with your account and designate them as private.
- Facebook: Once signed in, look under the 'Settings' tab at the top of the page to find the privacy control panel. Click the Profile option to set parameters regarding who can view your content.
- MySpace: Click the My Account button at the top of the page after logging in, then click Privacy to adjust your settings. Bear in mind that your age and location are typically displayed publicly even if your profile is set as private, as was the case in one of the examples cited in "They Know Your Dark Secrets...And Tell Anyone."
- Pandora: Your playlists are public unless you specify otherwise. Once logged in, click Account at the top of the page, and then follow the option to edit your profile info. From there, you'll see a checkbox that you can select to make your profile (and thus your playlists) private.
These are the steps for just a few of the most widely used sites that the people search engines scan. If you decide to rethink your level of privacy, the most important first step is to search yourself or your family members so that you'll know exactly which sites' privacy settings you need to reconfigure.
Ultimately, the power is in your hands. Switch off autopilot and take control.