Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Spokeo.com, Privacy and the Triumph of Facts Over Truth

You better look at this,” she said.

This turned out to be the shiny new Spokeo site, the latest social media aggregator/data-mining webby that in all likelihood will move the needle on more blood pressure gauges than anything else.

Privacy advocates (disclosure: of which I am one) will see this as a threat to all that is sacred in the long twilight struggle against our entire lives being digitized and posted on the intertoobs. Meanwhile, many marketing analysts are no doubt licking their chops at the segmentation possibilities: “How fast can you make it searchable?!”

To the privacy advocates, it’s important to note that Spokeo does have an opt-out utility. It’s as clunky as the car I drove in college, but it’s a start. That, in addition to the mantra I repeat to anybody who will listen:

When you’re on a social media platform, you’re in … wait for it … public.

Don’t be surprised if somebody overhears what you say.

Meanwhile, to the data miners: Don’t get too greedy just yet. The algorithm (whatever it is) that Spokeo uses to collect bits from social media sites and public records collects content. But the content it collects is completely devoid of context.

Try an experiment.

Plug in your own name. Then those of your friends, neighbors, relatives.

I, for one, learned that a guy I’ve known for 20 years as a hard-driving entrepreneur and a headbanger, actually enjoys easy listening music and spends his spare time quilting.


A hard-wired data miner can tell you that it doesn’t matter what my friend enjoys; really, only what he buys. But if he buys a quilting pattern for Grandma once for Mother’s Day, how likely a customer is he for your thread and needles?

Is Spokeo evil? No. It is what it is.

Is it a useful targeting tool for communicators?

Not yet.

A threat to your privacy?

Too early to tell.

Image Cred and these guys look cool