Spokeo.com: This will freak out the privacy advocates

Spokeo.com is a new service showing how far online tracking has gone, offering up phone numbers, home values, wealth estimates and even maps of houses for anyone you wish to track.

While a lovely user interface, Spokeo is really nothing new. Back in June 2008 Danny Dover posted a list of all the personal data elements Google could conceivably track about you — from every web site you’ve ever visited via Google search results pages to your stock portfolio, credit card, personal address, video preferences, friends and colleagues, even the time patterns on your calendars. If you’re a 100-year-old dwarf who likes to sleep late and then shop for shoes for your elf friends, Google likely knows it. Direct marketers have used similar mailing lists and PRIZM-segmentation schemes for decades to guess whether you will respond to Christmas catalogs with waxed-cotton hunting jackets.

For the record, most online targeting does not involve personally identifiable information — cookie snippets of code placed on your computer tag your device, and by proxy what type of person you are, but cannot ascertain your name, address, or other deeply personal data. (Google can do this because you’ve likely uploaded that data somehow in its vast ecosystem of search, YouTube videos, Gmail preferences, etc.) Yet in 2010, driven by a series of privacy faux pas such as Google’s Street View debacle, privacy advocates grew more anxious about such rising mountains of data. The FTC is backing a Do Not Track proposal that would allow consumers to opt-out, but we think that “fix” won’t work — primarily because it will only drive ad revenue to big publishers, make all ads less relevant, and hurt the little sites that many people like to read. Besides, marketers will find new ways around tracking such as “digital fingerprinting” that can divine individual computers and mobile phones without the use of cookies or consent.

We wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek over the holidays:

If Do Not Track moves forward, you’ll still see banner ads everywhere. They’ll be untargeted, with more off-kilter offers because no data about your preferences will be deployed to give you a golf ad, say, if you’ve been reading a lot of golfing articles. You’ll feel better about your privacy, despite the fact that website marketers could never track you individually, but rather could make wild approximations of the type of person you are. Thousands of small websites may disappear as dollars flow to consolidated publishing centers.

Is this too extreme? Surely, hobbyists will continue to write blogs and build sites out of love. But with $8 billion or more moving to the ivory towers of mainstream content, you’ll have fewer choices. There will be less innovation online. The Mashables and Huffington Posts of tomorrow may never get off the ground. Add video and soon the Web will be like turning on TV—perhaps with a few major networks, just like the 1960s.

The information is out there. Rather than fight it, consumers may just have to learn to manage it.

3 thoughts on “Spokeo.com: This will freak out the privacy advocates

  1. Ben,

    It freaks out more than privacy advocates. While I didn’t freak out, I did remove my name.

    The idea isn’t new and we’re hardly private online, but the way Spokeo collects and places data that people otherwise wouldn’t bother to search for is a bit disturbing. It transcends authority and pushes into transparency. And the difference is making it all available (asked for or not) vs. being available (when most of us wouldn’t care to look).

    All my best,

  2. Not that new a site Ben. Been around at least a year. I had forgotten about it. Good news is I did not reappear all this time later.

    Have you seen the SSRN report from last year? It is very enlightening. I always wonder if the power of the people will be completely repressed for now on since it has been over healthcare, bank reform, the environment, taxes etc.


    Basically 80% were against online tracking and 50%+ want jail time for those caught doing it without our knowledge.

    I use No Scripts and Ad Blocker Plus on FireFox. I unblock some websites that I frequent for free content out of guilt. But b4 I came into the industry I had zero guilt like most people. But Steve Smith of Media Post last year wrote about Ghostery. While no scripts might disable the ad networks on my machine it does not disable the tracking networks. Ghostery does. But it makes the browser almost unusable its so clunky.

    I have been shocked at how many networks try to connect with my machine when I am on a website. Way too many!

    Goes back to the question is do we really care as much about advertising relevance as the Industry says we are when deal with Regulations and in the Trade Pubs?

  3. The other concern would be the ability of governments to exploit this kind of technology. I am not talking about the black helicopter kind of conspiracy but say a foreign government against its own citizens? A foreign spy agency looking for blackmail material or financial vulnerabilities?

    Take for example the recent calls for Research in Motion’s servers to open up in India, Saudi etc. Can Google records be far behind?

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