If you are still relying on Google to snoop on your friends, you are behind the curve.
Armed with new and established websites, people are uncovering surprising details about colleagues, lovers and strangers that often don’t turn up in a simple Internet search. Though none of these sites can reveal anything that isn’t already available publicly, they can make it much easier to find. And most of them are free.
Zaba Inc.’s ZabaSearch.com turns up public records such as criminal history and birthdates. Spock Networks Inc.’s Spock.com and Wink Technologies Inc.’s Wink.com are ”people-search engines” that specialize in digging up personal pages, such as social-networking profiles, buried deep in the Web. Spokeo.com is a search site operated by Spokeo Inc., a startup that lets users see what their friends are doing on other Web sites. Zillow Inc.’s Zillow.com estimates the value of people’s homes, while the Huffington Post’s Fundrace feature tracks their campaign donations. Jigsaw Data Corp.’s Jigsaw.com, meanwhile, lets people share details with each other from business cards they’ve collected – a sort of gray market for Rolodex data.
Some people have come across dirt on their loved ones without even looking for it. Doug Orlyk, a 42-year-old librarian in Bensenville, Ill., recently turned to ZabaSearch to find his new boyfriend’s address so that he could send him a card. Instead, he found out that the boyfriend had been lying about his age – he was 43 years old, not 35 as he had claimed to be on the dating site where Mr. Orlyk had met him. ”I thought, ‘You’re a liar! You’re older than I am!,”’ Mr. Orlyk recalls. His new relationship ended soon thereafter.
Others rely on the Web to gather information on the job. Art Feagles, a technology specialist at the Cate School, a private high school in Carpinteria, Calif., runs the computer system for the alumni and development office. But his colleagues, who fund-raise for the school, keep tapping him for another tech skill: researching potential donors online.
Last year, for example, Mr. Feagles wanted to learn more about a potential donor by using the person’s address. So he searched for it in Google Inc.’s Google Earth aerial-mapping program, and saw that the address was for a golf-course condominium. From that, he gathered that this was probably a second home, and therefore the person must be rich – and a good prospect for a donation.
The Web sites, for their part, say they’re merely trying to provide services that people will find useful and entertaining. Ray Chen, a cofounder of Spokeo, says he and his partners ”don’t want to stalk people.” Instead, he says, ”we’re just trying to make something that’s fun to use.” Zaba CEO Nick Matzorkis says the dissemination of public information online is ”a 21st century reality with or without ZabaSearch.”
Larry Yu, a Google spokesman, says the use of Google Earth and Maps to glean personal information about others ”is not the intent of the products.” He touts their other uses, such as helping users visualize driving directions.
Many online sleuths start by signing up for an account on social-networking sites like Facebook Inc. and News Corp.’s MySpace, where they can search for individuals by name. (News Corp. is the publisher of The Wall Street Journal.) An acquaintance’s home address can be dug up using ZabaSearch or another public-records search engine; that can then be plugged into Google Maps, where the Street View feature might show an image of the address from the street, or Zillow, which can estimate the value of the home. Those trying to make a business contact might try Jigsaw, which invites users to provide phone numbers, email addresses, job titles and other information from business cards they’ve collected.
Some popular Web sites make certain content visible to the public by default – for instance, photos stored on Yahoo Inc.’s photo-sharing service Flickr, favorite online bookmarks on Yahoo’s del.icio.us service and wish lists on Amazon.com. If you enter your email address and password into Spokeo.com, the site will build a list of the people on your email-contact lists. Then it tracks those contacts’ activities on Web sites such as Flickr, del.icio.us, Amazon, MySpace and online-radio service Pandora Media Inc., sometimes turning up surprising material, from family albums to embarrassing shopping lists.
The bad news, for those who find themselves targeted by snoops: There is no foolproof way to protect yourself from embarrassing personal-data leaks. But you can avoid many mishaps by going to the root of the leak – that is, by keeping individual pieces of personal data from being made public in the first place. If you don’t want people to find your address online, for example, don’t list it in local phone books, which often provide data to online address-search services. If you don’t want others to see your Amazon wish list or the photos you’ve stored on Flickr, visit those sites’ privacy pages and adjust your settings accordingly.
Some sites use the ability to snoop as a selling point. The Huffington Post’s Fundrace feature, which allows users to enter their addresses and see a map showing their neighbors’ political donations, uses this come-on: ”Want to know … whether that new guy you’re seeing is actually a Republican or just dresses like one?”
Other sites make it easy to accidentally expose embarrassing details about yourself. Amazon’s wish-list feature, for example, lets people create public lists of items they want to buy. Says Amazon spokesman Craig Berman, ”We make it really clear that these lists are public and searchable.” But some people use the feature as a quasi-private things-to-buy-myself list.
Ruth Funabiki, a 57-year-old law librarian in Moscow, Idaho, recently discovered through Spokeo that a friend added something unusual to her wish list on Amazon.com: one of those disposable pads that protects mattresses from bedwetters. ”There’s a voyeuristic aspect to it,” she says. ”I’m embarrassed. I shouldn’t be looking.”