People Search Engines: They Know Your Dark Secrets…And Tell Anyone

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Spy Eyes

I know things about my lawyer I absolutely should not know. He's 55 years old, listens to the music of the band Creed, and screams like a little girl when riding roller coasters. He also relaxes with New Age spa treatments and is thinking about getting an electronic nose hair trimmer. And that's just the start.

Now, let me be clear: I've never spent a single moment outside the office with this guy (and for what it's worth, I'd just as soon not be privy to his personal grooming habits). I learned all of these details by tracking his social footprint across the Web--and he probably has no idea that he has left such a vivid trail behind.

In our age of social sharing, we expect some of our thoughts to be public. But 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 (read "Online Stalking Made Easy").

I'll let you in on a little secret: The picture isn't always pretty. And even if no rap sheet turns up, do you really want the world to know that you look at bad breath cures online or post awful Star Trek fan fiction?

The Depths of the Deep Web

You hear a lot of terms bounced around when you talk about this growing breed of search engines. Some services like to be called "social search" utilities, while others prefer the phrase "people search." Many boast of their ability to delve through the "Deep Web" that even Google doesn't touch.

"Even though most people think the size of the Web is basically the Google crawl index, there's actually a lot of information that Google doesn't crawl," says Harrison Tang, founder and CEO of Spokeo--which, taking a mash-up approach to its identification, describes itself as a "social people search engine" service.

People search engine Spokeo is upfront about what it thinks it can find on anyone.

Spokeo, like its competitors Pipl and CVGadget, is designed to let you dig up information on friends, foes, and anyone in between. Spokeo goes a step farther than many of the other services, though, by importing your entire e-mail address book.

Then, for a few bucks a month, it continually monitors your contacts and lets you know whenever anyone has done anything new, anywhere online. (The site's home page promises to help you "uncover personal photos, videos, and secrets," including "juicy" and "mouth-watering news about friends and coworkers.") [Editor's note: Pipl reports that my former boss donated $500 during the 2004 presidential election--candidate not named.]

Each individual bit of information may seem insignificant, but the cumulative effect of seeing it assembled in a neatly packaged portfolio is enough to give almost anyone pause. [Editor's note: According to CVGadget's quick search, my college roommate researched the game of bocce ball recently for a children's book she's writing. And a former boyfriend I haven't spoken to since the 1980s appears to be an actor in Santa Barbara. Who knew?]

"Aggregated identity is actually a new type of identity," Tang says, theorizing about why so many people seem to use the word "spooky" when describing his service. "A lot of people know that they have a public MySpace page, a lot of people know that they have a public Twitter album. But, when combined together, it's not one plus one equals two--you actually create a new identity."

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