Website creates virtual online bio of anyone

Website creates virtual online bio of anyone
SEATTLE -- Between identity theft and financial fraud, most consumers are more concerned than ever about who has their private information. So you can understand the commotion over a new website that gives you personal information about other people and gives other people personal information about you.

In just the past few weeks since it was launched, Spokeo.com has gone from getting hardly any hits to millions of hits a day.

The website is the brainchild of four Stanford University students. Co-founder Harrison Tang says he and his three college roommates came up with the idea in 2006. The engineering major says they noticed the trend of social networking becoming more and more a part of people's daily lives, and thought there might be interesting content if they could organize and share the information people were making public.

The team created technology to aggregate information from variety of different public data sources and since most domain names that meant something were already taken, they made up the name Spokeo. Tang says the idea came from the root word 'spoke' - as a metaphor for the 'hub' of conversation and friendships.

By using deep web technology and deep web search engines that crawl internet content, they invented an algorithm to make searching easier and broader in scope, than it is on other people search sites.

Spokeo gathers street addresses, e-mail addresses, housing and lifestyle profiles and information about ethnicity, age, marital status, gender, education, estimated home value, neighborhood characteristics, hobbies and interests, and even your zodiac sign.

The company says it gets information that's either already public, or that you have made public. Sources include public census data, phone directories, property records, consumer records, marketing surveys, and some 40 different social networking sites. For a fee, you can get specific details on addresses, property information, personal wealth estimates and how some likely rates on the Spokeo credit meter.

But contrary to rumors, Tang insists Spokeo does not collect any information about your credit.

"That's just a myth about our service site," Tang said by phone from his headquarters in Pasadena, California. "I want to clarify very clearly that we do not have people's credit information. We do not have people's credit card information, we do not have people's bank account information. We do not have any private financial information about anybody."

Tang acknowledges the site has a few bugs to work out when it comes to accuracy. For example, the search on Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn shows he has no children while he has three. It does not state his occupation.

In one of the two results for Governor Christine Gregoire, she's listed as a male, with no interest in politics. In the other, she's listed as retired.

Tang says having just launched the website, he and his team were caught off-guard by the sudden huge influx of attention. In a 10-day period, he says the company went from getting 100 e-mails a day, to 3,000.

"We've been inundated and overwhelmed by the response. We're trying to listen to everyone's feedback," Tang said.

Tang says he and his co-founders knew they had created something very easy to use, and they know they have work to do on data accuracy. The data can be skewed by creative and embellished biographies on social network sites or errors from other data sources.

"The accuracy of the information depends upon the accuracy of our sources. Different sources have different strengths and specialties," Tang explained.

He says the company's approach to increasing accuracy will be to aggregate more sources and find the most objective data.

The website privacy page includes a disclaimer that it cannot guarantee 100% accuracy. And it also has instructions on how to remove your name, so that your information is not accessible. Tang says as a security measure, the site will only let you remove one name in a given period of time to avoid computer "robots" from removing large quantities of people without permission. If you try to remove more than one name, you'll get a notice to try again later.

For at least one local resident, we found the privacy issue had already been taken care of without having to opt-out of the Spokeo site. Click on Bill Gates name and you'll get a secured business address plus a couple of pictures but nothing more. With the exception of seeing that Gates is "in a relationship", all other categories simply read "unknown".

More on Spokeo's privacy policy at spokeo.com/privacy