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You won't find Spokeo founder included on his 'people search' site

The aggregator has information on pretty much everyone, pulled from Web sources, and offers some of it free. But Harrison Tang, who came up with the concept in college, opted out of participating.

June 08, 2010|David Lazarus
  • Founder Harrison Tang says Spokeo is in talks with Facebook to get information about users.
Founder Harrison Tang says Spokeo is in talks with Facebook to get information… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

Harrison Tang cares about his privacy and takes elaborate steps to protect it. Your privacy is another matter.

Tang, 27, is co-founder of a "people search" website called Spokeo, which serves up extraordinarily detailed profiles of pretty much everyone -- including you -- gleaned from online directories, databases and social networks.

Don't take my word for it. Do a search for your name at Spokeo's website.

"The Web is becoming more and more people-centric," Tang told me over coffee the other day. "We're just aggregating what's already out there."

I'd love to say that we met at his Pasadena office, where I was able to get a sense of what this company was about and who works there. But Tang wanted to get together instead at a Starbucks outlet. It was the first hint that privacy is very much on his mind -- his own, that is.

Tang said Spokeo -- rhymes with Tokyo -- began as a lark in a Stanford University dorm room. A rudimentary version of the site's service was unveiled in 2006. But it wasn't until a new and improved version was introduced in March, after a move to Southern California, that things really took off.

Suddenly the number of daily searches by users topped 1 million. About 100,000 people signed up for full access to Spokeo's resources at a cost of $14.85 for three months or $35.40 for a year of people searches.

A free search will likely turn up the street someone lives on and their phone number, even if it's unlisted. You'll see that person's age (or a close approximation), ethnicity, occupation, education, hobbies, relationship status, Zodiac sign, whether he or she has kids, even the quality of their neighborhood.

Not all the info is on target. My listing, for example, said my home has a swimming pool (I wish!). But in Spokeo searches performed by about a dozen colleagues here at the paper, I'd have to say that the site's information was accurate (or close to it) more often than not. Paying customers can get people's full address, including street number, and more detailed information about who others are and what kind of life they lead.

It's not that Spokeo and similar sites are rooting around in our trash and revealing our deepest secrets. But by compiling free dossiers of our digital doings, they make it easier than ever before for others to peek into our lives and learn who we are and how we behave. And Spokeo seems to serve up more info, more easily, than all the rest, according to privacy watchdogs.

"We get calls every day about this," said Rainey Reitman, spokeswoman for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego advocacy group. "People go to Spokeo and are utterly flabbergasted by what's available. It's incredibly invasive."

Invasive -- but not illegal. Since all the information is essentially up for grabs, Spokeo is guilty of nothing more than building a better mousetrap.

Tang said the privately held site pools data from about 80 sources, including LinkedIn, MySpace, Twitter and Yelp.

Facebook is the most prominent exception to Spokeo's digital reach. "We're still working on that," Tang said. "We're talking to them about it."

Yet even without access to Facebook's voluminous user pages, Spokeo might strike some as a Christmas present for stalkers, spouse abusers and others with ill intent.

Tang said he's sensitive to such perceptions, but believes his site offers nothing that couldn't be found elsewhere, albeit with perhaps a bit more hunting and gathering.

"Stalkers already know how to get this information," he said.

Tang noted that Spokeo allows people to opt out from being included in its searches. To do so, though, you have give the company your e-mail address and then confirm it's a working address by clicking on a link the company will send you.

Those are two data points most privacy-minded people may not want to provide, especially to a website that's already eager to know more about you.

Spokeo is also affiliated with a business called ReputationDefender Inc., which for $9.95 a month or $95.40 a year promises to erase your information from, yes, Spokeo and other people-search services.

Because Spokeo gets a cut of the action any time a user signs up through its site with ReputationDefender, it finds itself in the interesting position of profiting from a solution to the problem it helped cause.

Tang repeatedly stressed that Spokeo doesn't represent a greater threat to people's privacy. But it's noteworthy that he's opted out from inclusion on his own site.

"I was getting a lot of e-mails and threats," Tang explained. "It was decided by others at the company, and by lawyers, that it would be better if I opted out."

Moreover, it turns out that the business address the company lists online and with state authorities is actually a small mailbox at a UPS Store in a Pasadena strip mall. No phone number is provided. Tang said this is because it's more convenient to have a fixed mailbox, and because Spokeo isn't equipped to handle a large volume of calls.

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