Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Websites: Watching You Like a Hawk
Websites are keeping a close eye on what you use them for nowadays. Many of the clicks you make are recorded and logged. This information is then used to (among other things) supply you with more directed advertising. Instead of supplying the 22 year old male college student with advertisements for Fisher-Price toys, they might get advertisements about new razors or video games. In theory, this method of directed advertising is supposed to both improve the success rate of the ads, as well as improve the experience of the user, benefiting both parties; the website gains more ad revenue, and the customer is supplied ads that are relevant to his or her interests. However, is collecting this information about our clicks morally acceptable?

I say yes. Many times, the information is not even tied to your name. Websites also need to produce a profit in order to be maintained and operated, and they are simply maximizing their profits. Now, I am all about privacy, but in its most basic form, I see nothing wrong with this directed advertising that is driven by tracking the clicks of your mouse.

I do, on the other hand, have a problem with websites that use some of this information for other purposes. Try going to and searching for yourself. This website is classified as a "social network aggregator" website. After a quick sampling of this website, and since I am a computer science major, I wanted to learn more. I learned that by using deep web crawling technology, as well as offline sources, Spokeo is able to collect information about anybody from a near endless number of sources. I was shocked to see some of the information that was present on this website. Many people I searched on Spokeo had a record; this included information about their marital status, their salary, their place of residence, their phone number, and a LOT more if you were willing to pay some cold hard cash for it.

While Spokeo does have an option to remove yourself from their database, I learned that it has historically not worked as intended. Often times people will be temporarily removed, only to be added again the next time the deep web crawlers operate. Other times these requests for removal end up getting ignored or "lost" by Spokeo. However, if you were somehow able to never be added to Spokeo... you wouldn't have to worry about being removed!

What is very interesting to me is identifying what variables cause a person to "have a record" on Spokeo, and how to fly under the radar. I was one of the few ghosts on the website; as far as they were concerned, I do not exist. I am not even a member of my own family! When compared to people that are on the list, however, I made some interesting observations about our differences: I do not own any property, I do not have a home phone number (only cell phone), I have never applied for my own credit card, and I never use my full name on the internet for Twitter, Blogging, Forums, etc. How many of these factors make a difference? I'm not sure. Maybe it's impossible to fly under Spokeo's radar forever, but for now, I'm in the clear.... Are you?

Directed Advertising: Yes Please!
Automated Cyber Stalking: No Thank You.


  1. Yes! I am CLEAR on Spokeo! I do not exist, I'm not part of my family, etc. I searched some of my other friends, and one of them had false information! It was he was in his 50's (he's actually 27) and owned the house that his parents actually own.
    Thank you for the link to this site - I had just had a conversation about it, and forgot to write it down.

  2. Added a comment but it hasn't come through, so trying again... Spokeo is a particularly interesting example because it serves as a different kind of (non-ad-related) tracking. Part of what makes it dangerous is that information is often incorrect, as you and Sasha both note, and that it offers no information on how it aggregates its information.

    I wonder where you say that the removal process is flawed - a link here would be great.