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Spokeo Publishes All of Your Personal Information in One Place. Here's How to (Temporarily) Protect Your Privacy

Have you ever wondered how much of your personal information is out there on the Internet for all the world to read? Head over to a site called Spokeo, and find out for yourself.

The site, which launched in 2007, markets itself as an online white pages, but warns that it's definitely "not your grandma's phonebook." And that much, at least, is true. Spokeo stores information on your age, income, home value, credit score, and relationship status. Type your name and city into the search box, and you'll find all that information automatically pop up before your eyes -- along with a Google-generated map to your house, and relatively more arcane tidbits, like how old you were when you had your first kiss.

Much of this information is gathered from public and commercial resources, and a lot of the really detailed data is now held behind a paywall. (A three month membership will run you $4.95 per month.) But the fact that one site even has all this information has raised serious concerns among cyber-security experts and privacy advocates alike.

"We recognize that for some users it can be a startling experience to encounter a block of personalized information which they may otherwise be unaware exists – particularly when the information is of a type they may perceive as 'private,'" reads a recent blog post from Spokeo. "It is important to understand, however, that Spokeo does not generate any data, nor is it the source. We simply aggregate public records already published across the Internet and other venues, many of which have been in existence for a very long time, and act as a search engine like Google." (In case you're wondering, Spokeo CEO Harrison Tang has blocked his personal information from the site.)

Creepy, But Still Legal

Spokeo's personal information isn't always accurate, but it's generally detailed enough to warrant concern. Fox News recently asked 15 people to test the service by searching for themselves. Of the 15 guinea pigs, ten found inaccuracies in Spokeo's report. Among that group of ten, three said their report was way off base, while the rest cited minor inaccuracies, like false addresses, inflated incomes, or the wrong number of people in their households. (This writer's listing, for what it's worth, inaccurately listed him as 'married,' but was spot-on, otherwise.)

These inaccuracies are apparently par for the course at Spokeo. "Since individual profiles are only as accurate as the published information they are comprised of, we continue to remind users that any information on our site should be regarded as a reference only," explained Spokeo spokesperson Katie Johnson. Unfortunately, the company's recent blog post confirms that the site is "actively working on improving the accuracy of the data."

The company, however, may soon run into trouble from the Federal Trade Commission, which has received a handful of complaints from individual users and consumer groups. Speaking to Fox, FTC spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell confirmed that "the Center for Democracy and Technology has petitioned the FTC to investigate Spokeo for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act," but she could not elaborate on any details of the investigation.

But some aren't so sure that the government will have the power to fight against Spokeo, and others don't even think it should. "Data laws are so lax in the U.S. that companies can do this sort of thing quite legally," TechCrunch's Michael Arrington recently wrote in a post, lovingly titled 'There's Absolutely Nothing You Can Do About Spokeo, So Stop Whining.' The Better Business Bureau even came to Spokeo's defense in a recent blog post. "If you don't like your information showing up to ex-spouses, potential bosses, bill collectors, and the curious masses, don't provide it to social networking sites," the Bureau writes. "If you do, make sure your privacy settings are tuned to the highest possible level."

Removing Yourself From Spokeo (For Now)

There may not be a whole lot we can do to shut down Spokeo completely, but there are some steps you can take to at least remove your information from the platform. First, search for yourself on the site, and copy the URL of your profile. Then, click on the 'Privacy' link at the bottom of the page, and paste the URL into the field under the heading titled 'To remove a listing from Spokeo...'. The site will then prompt you to provide an e-mail address, but, as Nerdist points out, it's a good idea to just give them a secondary address that you use for list managers only. After clicking 'Remove Listing,' you should receive a confirmation e-mail, which will prompt you to confirm the removal. Confirm, sit back, and take a sigh of relief. (BoingBoing also recommends cleaning out any Spokeo-related cookies once you're finished.)

Whether or not your information will actually stay hidden, however, is another matter altogether. This week, a blogger known as Dissent Doe filed another complaint with the FTC, after the profiles she removed from Spokeo suddenly reappeared on the site. "We are constantly receiving new and updated listings, and we try very hard to match these new listings to the existing ones and preserve your privacy preference," a Spokeo spokesperson told Forbes' Kashmir Hill. "However, a computer cannot know the difference between 'John Smith at 1234 Nowhere Street' and 'John Smith at 5678 Somewhere Avenue,' though you may know that you moved."

These slight discrepancies, the company claims, can cause deleted listings to re-appear, but Spokeo insists that its "opt out policy is among the best on the Internet." Dissent Doe, on the other hand, confirmed to Forbes that the addresses on her deleted and reactivated profiles were exact matches.

Ultimately, then, it'll be up to the FTC to issue a final ruling on Spokeo's legality, but there's no denying that the site's ability to aggregate our most intimate information is terrifying. Perhaps more shocking is the fact that it's been around more than three years, and has only garnered widespread attention in recent weeks, thanks to a New Year's Eve post from BoingBoing. But even if the service does operate within the law, it should at least serve as a stark reminder that, in today's Age of Information, our lives may be more exposed than we ever imagined.

Tags: AddressBook, CreditReport, data, ftc, FtcComplaint, PersonalInformation, PhoneBook, politics, privacy, search, security, Spokeo, top, Web, WhitePages