Combining online and offline data
Personal data has become far easier to access and aggregate than it used to be. Long before we started cataloging our lives on the Internet, much of the information about us lived in hard-copy public records documents at the city hall or the county courthouse. Those public records, which include birth data, real estate records, criminal records, political affiliation and voting records, and more, have in recent years been scanned, digitized, and otherwise fed into databases. That data is now being combined with our online personal data.
A whole industry of public records data companies has sprung up to aggregate public records data from every city, county, and state in the union, and to make the data easily available online (for a price). Some of these firms, like Intelius.com and Spokeo, are combining public records data (originally created offline, in the physical world) with online data (information that we give out via the Internet), such as personal data from social networks.
Spokeo aggregates data taken from social media and networking sites, and it augments user profiles with public records data, the company's chief strategy officer, Emanuel Pleitez, tells me.
Intelius Inc., which owns Intelius.com and other "people search" sites, has begun augmenting its core public records data product by adding social network data to its user profiles. "It's an area we're moving in now," says Jim Adler, chief privacy officer and general manager of data systems at Intelius.
He adds, "Our job is to pull data together from whatever sources are available. If it's publicly available, we'll use it."
Today Intelius is capturing only the most basic information from Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks -- names, ages, and where a person has lived. But many aggregators are just beginning to explore the uses of social networking data.
Data combination could pose new privacy threats
What may be a dark side to this mashup of public records and social networking data is this: Public records sites like Intelius, Spokeo, and PeopleFinders.com distribute the kind of data that landlords, insurers, employers, or creditors could easily use to screen applicants, but the sites insist that their content is not intended for such uses.
"The use of our service to screen potential employees, tenants, or for any other purpose that's restricted by the Fair Credit Reporting Act is in violation of our Terms & Conditions," Intelius's Adler wrote in an email to PCWorld.
But many people suspect that personal data offered at public records sites is being used for exactly such purposes. As FTC Commissioner Julie Brill has commented: "I have long been concerned about data that [is] used in place of traditional credit reports to make predictions that become a part of the basis for making determinations regarding a consumer's credit [and] his or her ability to secure housing, gainful employment, or various types of insurance."
And in truth, the public records sites would have no way of knowing if this happened -- and may not want to know.
Add social networking info, and an employer or landlord could get a more nuanced (but potentially misleading) picture of a person. Here, data from two parts of a person's life is being accessed -- public records, formal and open, and social networking data, informal and intended for "friends." An applicant for a job, a housing rental, or insurance would probably have no inkling of his or her social network data being accessed.
Combining data for political targeting
High-tech targeting isn't just for selling products anymore. It's now being used to sell candidates and ideas.