April 15, 2024

Your personal information is everywhere on the Internet and it is more than just a financial risk

What you need to know about data collection sitesfake images

When I took on this assignment about data collection sites and the privacy issues they raise, I did a quick search for my own name. It was mostly due diligence, with a touch of curiosity. Look, I thought I had deleted all my personal information from the internet after a long period of harassment from an acquaintance, so I really didn’t expect it to show up much. .

Imagine my surprise when I saw all my contact information (home address, emails, and even my employment information) there for anyone to find.

I’m not the only one who could be at risk of being located. A quick search on RocketReach, one of the most popular data collection sites out there right now, will turn up information on virtually anyone you know. Go ahead, search for yourself or your best friend, and see: Results from other similar sites will likely also appear, such as WhitePages.com and TruePeopleSearch.com. And unfortunately, it’s a worrying and complicated situation that’s not as simple as it seems.

“There is no law that prohibits companies from legally sharing data that you have given permission to do so,” said Gregory D. Moody, director of the cybersecurity program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. So when you create an email address, that essentially gives the email provider “permission” to offer it to data collection websites like RocketReach.

And even if a site has a privacy policy, it’s usually not there to protect you, the consumer. “Privacy policies on many sites do not attempt to keep data private unless stated so. Many companies have a privacy policy, but it does not guarantee privacy, it should simply state what the company does with the data, which may include selling your data. The United States, at the federal level, does not have any law prohibiting this type of behavior,” adds Moody.

A news story earlier this year signaled what could soon be a widespread shift at the state level when it comes to people’s data and privacy. Five states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Utah and Virginia) have begun enforcing statutes that put data privacy protection in the hands of the individual to whom it belongs, and the idea is that more states will follow suit.

These laws are modeled after Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), where “individuals effectively own your personal information and therefore presumably have the legal right to control it, and who can use it is a question for them.” must decide,” according to a report by Reuters.

What is RocketReach?

Given its nature, it is not surprising that Internet users wonder whether RocketReach is a legitimate website or not. The simple answer is “yes” – RocketReach is marketed as a method for finding and establishing business connections. But you could also give them your personal email and home address, which may be something you’d like to keep just for your friends and family.

RocketReach essentially collects information from the Internet or a third party, according to its website. As such, it focuses more on company details (you can see the full LinkedIn summary of whoever you searched for) and business contact information. But technically, RocketReach could extract anything you’ve shared online, if you entered your personal address or email when creating an account on a social media site, for example. Once all that data is collected, the company compiles it and sells plans to people or companies that want to get access to someone’s contact information.

“There aren’t many legal ramifications regarding privacy in the workplace context, especially in the enterprise prospecting market,” said Heather Federman, chief privacy officer at BigID.

Internet security icons on blue and purple background.Internet security icons on blue and purple background.

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The privacy problem

If you searched and found your name and details online, you may have first asked yourself “why is my name on RocketReach?” But if there’s a reason you don’t want your personal information to be publicly available and available for anyone to see (beyond the simple fact that it may seem very intrusive), that confusion can quickly turn into concern. That’s right.

Take my story, for example. Over a decade ago, a former acquaintance began harassing my friends, trying to convince them to talk to me on this person’s behalf. When my friends refused, this person would spend hours circling my apartment building, stopping outside my unit to look at my window before walking away without making physical contact with me. A series of voicemails threatening to ruin my career eventually led me to call the police, but they didn’t think this person posed a “viable risk to my safety,” so a restraining order was never issued.

Following that response, I felt like my only option was to take matters into my own hands, so I tried to disappear and make myself as invisible as I could; I blocked the acquaintance’s number and email and made everyone I knew do the same. I changed my email completely, signed up for a different service, and created a new username. I also moved, not just to another apartment, but to a completely new state.

Everything was fine for a long time, about eight years, to be exact. Then, I received an email from a made-up address that I knew was from this person I had tried so hard to hide from. (It wasn’t difficult to determine whose name it was; this person had just transposed a few letters of his name to use as a username.) The email contained my home address, and only my home address. Nothing else. I tried not to think about it too much (I knew it was a scare tactic), but I wondered how they had gotten my new email (which I quickly blocked) and my new address.

About a year after that, I moved again. And about halfway through my lease, I received another email. This one from another disposable email address, with the same simple content: my new home address. This time I got nervous so I looked up my name online and was surprised by what I found. All of my contact information was plastered online for anyone to see, spread across a series of websites like WhitePages.com and one I hadn’t heard of before at the time, RocketReach.co.

It felt like a major violation. Spam emails to your personal account are not the only risk posed by websites like RocketReach. Some people, like me, have security reasons for not wanting all of their personal and contact information available.

“With the availability of information, risks will always abound,” Moody said, “particularly if you can link online information to offline information” by misleading someone. It all depends on how someone is using the site. It’s just a tool, Moody says, and it can be used for good or bad purposes depending on the person doing the searching.

a person holding a phone typing unsubscribea person holding a phone typing unsubscribe

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How to remove your information from sites like RocketReach and WhitePages

Every website has a way to delete your information, and I performed that process for WhitePages.com and RocketReach.co. For WhitePages.com, it’s a relatively simple five-step process that includes an automated phone call to ensure it’s “you.” RocketReach, on the other hand, requires you to go through a process of “claiming” your profile (so deleting your information is not instantaneous) before you can go through another process to delete everything.

But as I discovered (since my information resurfaced years later), it seems that it is not certain that your information will disappear forever. As my situation shows, it’s basically just a request. And it’s not something they necessarily have to act on, because of the way privacy laws are written.

“Most of these sites have a good legal team and are well versed in each state and its relevant laws, when they apply,” Moody said. Additionally, “most US state privacy laws are based on ‘opt-out,’ and this is standard industry practice at this time,” adds Federman. “There would have to be some kind of real outcry from users, but I’m not sure how many business owners would be like that. [mad] about this, in addition to getting upset, they receive too many emails.” That is, of course, as long as the site is used appropriately, as a business prospecting tool rather than a way to locate someone who doesn’t want to be found.

How to protect your information online

To be clear: it is very, very difficult to completely protect your personal information online. With social media, personal websites, networking sites like LinkedIn, and even the apps you download on your phone, it’s not so easy to be a ghost online. Additionally, most of these sites have privacy policies that make the data collection platforms completely legal.

“If you use something and it’s free, like an app, then you’re actually the product,” Moody said. “That’s why it’s free. They offer it for free in exchange for your data.”

Still, the best thing you can do is try to be as careful as possible with the personal information you share online. Taking these smart privacy steps can help:

  • Make profiles private whenever possible.

  • Carefully read the privacy policy of websites, email platforms and smartphone apps if your security is an issue (and consider not downloading that app or having a profile on that social site if the policy says your data is valid) .

  • Search yourself periodically online and, for each search result that shows personal information, go through the process of removing those details. The process varies by website, but you can often find step-by-step instructions in the site’s FAQ section or directly on the page where your details are located.

  • Please do not assume that requesting deletion of your personal information will cause it to be “out” forever. Even after you have successfully deleted your data, continue typing its name into the search engine from time to time to make sure it is still gone.

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