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Identity Crisis

How Your Privacy is Invaded on the Internet

Every time that you fire up your Web browser, hundreds of hidden data-collecting companies start to track your interests discreetly and add them to an individualized profile that they sell to advertisers. What’s worse, apparently government isn’t upset about their spying.

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Michael Keller/Corbis

In 1993, The New Yorker ran a cartoon that showed two dogs sitting by a computer. The caption read, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In 2011, not only do hundreds of companies know exactly what breed of dog that you are, but they also know where you like to walk, whether you have fleas and what kind of dog food that you prefer.

At least 145 so-called people-search sites allow people to look up other people by their name and the state in which they live, according to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which is dedicated to raising awareness of how technology affects privacy. You can see how old someone is, see the names of his/her family members and even look at a Google Street View image of his/her house. For a fee that ranges from $2 to $50, these sites will give you even more data, including a home telephone number, a home value, previous addresses, previous convictions, education background, hobbies, occupation, ethnicity and religion. They’ll even show you the photos that a person has posted on social networks.

These people-search sites aren’t alone in tracking you. Hundreds of data-gathering companies track your Internet-browsing habits and record your online activities, behaviors and interests without asking for permission, according to Jim Brock, who is the founder of Privacy Choice, which creates free tools to help consumers to study online tracking and protect their online privacy.

What’s spookier still, all data-gathering companies sell their information about you to third parties that then analyze your profile to bombard you with tailored advertisements.

“Companies are building detailed dossiers on consumers based on their online browsing behavior,” says Christopher Soghoian, who is a security researcher and privacy advocate. “These reveal things that you wouldn’t tell your employer, your friends or, in some cases, even your significant other.”

Consequently, we now live in a world in which our browsing habits have become a commodity, and most of the time, the tracking is so discreet that consumers don’t even know the extent to which they’re being monitored.

FINDING PEOPLE. When it comes to people-search sites and how they go about building a portfolio on you, much of the information comes from public records, such as court records, property deeds, social-networking sites, telephone books and utility-company records. These sites also will buy information from third-party companies that might have mailed you a catalog or encouraged you to turn in a warranty card.

One site, Spokeo, will show you a picture (free) of a person’s residence when you simply type in his/her name and state. Spokeo also sells estimates of people’s creditworthiness and income. It used to market itself as a way for employers to perform a quick background check on potential employees. That’s despite the fact that the company notes on its information page that its data “is not verified,” “may not be entirely accurate” and “might not be completely up-to-date.” In other words, employers could learn things about you that are completely false or misleading. For instance, an employer might jump to the conclusion that you’re a drug user just because they saw that you joined a pro-medical-marijuana group.

Center for Democracy & Technology, which is dedicated to keeping the Internet free from censorship, filed a complaint in June 2010 with Federal Trade Commission and argued that Spokeo was violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act. That act allows anyone who’s turned down for housing, a job or a loan on the basis of his/her credit to see a copy of the report and correct any information that’s in it. Spokeo immediately changed its website to stop marketing to employers, and FTC didn’t act on the complaint. The company continues to point to its information page, where it rejects any responsibility for the accuracy of its information. And it continues to sell information about people. It just markets it differently.

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