I learned about a website www.spokeo.com recently, which allows the public to search for personal information on people. It is an American website, and so I did what any loving niece would do, I looked up my Uncle John. I learned there are 976 people in the USA with his name (at least 976 people in the spokeo database with his name), and 18 in the state in which he lives. I was able to easily find him by scrolling down through the list and finding his city and address. I clicked on his name and a profile appeared, which was alarming in its detail. It had his address, phone number and confirmation of his marriage to my aunt, all information that is available in most phone books. However, the information does not stop there. It correctly lists his age, ethnicity, education level, profession, whether he has children, how many people live in his house, how long he has lived there, whether he owns it, and what style of house it is. His neighbourhood is profiled, and strangely enough, so are his interests. This is where the profile takes liberties. It values his house at over $1 million. If this is true, congratulations Uncle John! However, the person who alerted me to this website said her house was also listed at this value, and incorrectly. However, it is the lifestyle and interests section that takes the most liberties. Apparently my uncle enjoys sports and reading and the outdoors, which I’d say is true. He also apparently loves to read about politics, but is not interested in politics. And he enters sweepstakes and loves home decorating. And there are a series of photos of strange men that I can say are NOT my uncle.
This is where the profile shifts subtly to a work of fiction. There are privacy concerns with pooling together seemingly inconsequential data and creating a profile of a person, but it is even more invasive when part of the profile is untrue. There are just enough points of truth in the profile to create an air of reality to it, so that a person looking at the profile might accept everything on the profile to be true. And make judgements of him. Potential Employers, friends, partners, all might turn to such a profile to make assessments about you, which might affect you in the real world. Yet the untruths do not satisfy the requirements for a cause of action in libel (even in the UK!), nor would the nature of the information likely provide grounds for an action in breach of privacy, although there might be a cause of action under the Data Protection Act. In tiny writing at the bottom of his profile spokeo writes, “Profile data is derived from marketing surveys, consumer records, and public data sources and is not guaranteed to be 100% accurate. The data provided to you by Spokeo may not be used as a factor in establishing a consumer’s eligibility for credit, insurance, employment purposes or for any other purpose authorized under the FCRA.” Notice the use of the word “may” for the use of the information by potential employers etc. It does not expressly forbid the use of the information, but conveniently exempts itself from liability for the truth of the content. Even if it did expressly forbid it, how would spokeo know that a potential employer looked at its site and relied on the information in a profile in making a decision between two candidates for a job?
I viewed the ‘basic’ profile. If I pay$2.95 per month I get a one year membership to view a more detailed profile of him. Instead, I deleted his profile. You can thank me later Uncle John.