When Nazira Sacasa sent me a press release for a new clothing boutique late last month, she didn't know that I would launch a full-scale web search to learn everything I could about her. But I needed a victim to test out the new breed of people-search services on the web, and a paid publicity seeker seemed like fair game. And so, after just a few minutes of clicking around, I had found Sacasa's MySpace page, her age, home address and what appears to be quite a lot of information about her family in Florida all without using Google or any other popular search site.
As recently as six months ago, online snooping was mostly done surreptitiously or under the polite guise of "social networking." Now all subtlety has been cast aside. An estimated 30% of all Web searches are aimed at finding people, according to industry statistics, and upstarts like PeekYou, Pipl, Spock, and Wink are vying for a piece of this potentially huge market. These free sites work by scouring the Web for any virtual footprints you might have on MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Yahoo!, Flickr and elsewhere, and then creating a fresh profile that organizes all that information on one page. Even Whitepages.com recently expanded its phone listings to include business addresses and other contact information culled from all sorts of mail-order marketing lists and business directories.
What makes these sites controversial is that they gather all this information without your permission. The resulting profiles can be embarrassing or simply wrong. And getting those profiles removed or changed can be impossible. While some sites say they will honor your request to have your profile deleted, they steer you toward "claiming" your profile and making corrections to it instead. Even then, you have limited control over the content and the way it is presented. (TIME.com got Sacasa's permission to mention the results of our search on her before posting this story.)
One of the most popular people search sites today is ZoomInfo, which in June got 824,000 unique visitors in the U.S., according to comScore Media Metrix. Focused on business profiles, it currently has 37 million of them posted online, which it culls using its own natural language search technology. Inaccuracies abound, as I learned firsthand when I checked my own profile and saw that everything from my telephone number to my full name were flat out wrong. "We're the first to admit that they are not 100% accurate," says ZoomInfo COO Bryan Burdick, who estimates that only 500,0000 just 1% of the profiles have been verified by the person they claim to identify. (To remove your profile, email your request and a link to your profile to email@example.com.)
The newest people search site to launch is Spock, which received $7 million in venture capital financing last December, and will come out of its invitation-only beta version on Aug. 8. Aside from trolling the big social networks to populate its database, it also searches blogs, Yahoo! profiles, Wikipedia, and company sites to identify both you and other "related" people. (It lists Al Pacino, for example, as being related to Matt Damon and George Clooney.) To improve accuracy, the site lets users vote on all the information it has teased out in tags, such as "male", "Italian-American", "actor" and so on. If it turns out that you are Irish-American, and not Italian-American, for example, your friends (and even strangers) can weigh in and have the offending tag removed. And while anyone can "claim" their existing profile and make corrections, the Spock community gets the final vote on whether the information and links you provide are accurate.
Want to opt out? If politely asking to have your listing removed doesn't work, don't expect a lawsuit to help much either. According to Daniel Solove, a George Washington University law professor and author of the forthcoming book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy On the Internet (coming out in October from Yale University Press), it's difficult to argue that these sites are either defamatory or a breach of privacy since the information is publicly available on the Internet. "It's very problematic, but it's also very difficult to solve," he says. "On the one hand you have freedom of speech, and on the other you have privacy. Both involve people's freedom."
Solove does question the sites' viability, however. "If these things are highly inaccurate, what's the business model?" says Solove. While advertising revenue for online search as a whole reached $17 billion in 2006, almost none of it comes from searching for ordinary people. (When I type "Nazira Sacasa" or my own name in Google, for example, no ads pop up.) "It's challenging to construct a business model that does not generate revenue," notes Internet analyst David Card of Jupiter Research. Spock aims to get around this problem by offering broader people-search offerings on celebrities, people in the news and general categories like plumbers or singles. Meanwhile, ZoomInfo is selling a premium version of its service to recruiters and businesses. It might help if they got their facts straight first.