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What Do Personal Information Aggregators Know About You?

What is an information aggregator?

Type in a name—your spouse’s, a best friend’s, a school teacher’s—on the information aggregator site Spokeo.com, and within seconds you’ll find their address and phone number. And if you’re willing to pay, you can also learn their age, relationship status, the value of their home and hobbies, among other tidbits.

Scary stuff, yes, but it’s perfectly legal. Information aggregator sites collect information that is freely available in public records and databases, as well as anything that can be found on a person’s public Facebook profile. They are able to do this through the use of “spidering,” a piece of code or software that is programmed to “crawl” around the web looking for data. Information obtained from the web is then combined with public records and packaged for sale. The result is a profile that is “so spookily complete, you could almost make the assumption [the aggregator sites] know more about you than you do, and they sell it to the highest bidder often without paying attention to how that information will be used in the end,” notes Owen Tripp, COO and co-founder of reputation.com, a site that helps consumers and businesses control their online activity.

It’s not just Spokeo doing the sleuthing; other large information aggregators include Intelius, WAATP, MyLife and Pipl (view a complete list). You can even read about your own recent home purchase on BlockShopper. Such sites often provide personally identifiable information for free in order to try and get consumers to buy their services to learn more. So teachers, be aware. If you think this couldn’t possibly happen to you, think again. “Every single day, and not only every single day, but often every single minute [spiders] are traversing the web,’’ says Tripp. “If they can harvest that information, it’s very valuable to the information aggregator company because it’s very fresh.” In other words, be aware that any time you sign up for an online newsletter, become a member of a special interest group or even when you opt-in to receive coupons and special offers from your favorite store, you’re opening yourself up to potential scrutiny.

Information aggregator sites are businesses like anything else, observes Mario Almonte, a social media blogger and commentator for The Huffington Post. “None of these sites are evil, they’re just … looking to collect information,” he says. With all the things that people can now do online, such as pay a parking ticket or find out the price of houses in a certain neighborhood, the web has become a “vast and transparent place,” Almonte says. “Unless you put something behind a restricted site where you’ve got to be a member and put in a password …everything you put on the web is like putting it out on the street—it’s all very public.”

Be aware that your information IS out there.

There has been a plethora of news stories about teachers and educators who have found their jobs compromised because of what they blog about or misleading information that shows up about them on the web. “What you and I might normally be able to do when we express an opinion on the internet—teachers are held up to a much higher standard and come under deeper scrutiny than almost anyone else,” says Tripp. Like other public figures, teachers need to be especially hyper vigilant. “Teachers are natural targets because they are role models; they are the named people in our communities whom we want to learn more about,” Tripp says. “I want to know who my town mayor is and who my kid’s eighth grade teacher is and I want to know as much about that person as possible.” For as little as $2.95 a month for a year’s subscription, you can also find out a person’s race, their zodiac sign, political affiliation, religion, who they live with, how long they have lived at their address, their level of education and profession.

People also need to be concerned about the fact that their personal information is aggregated in one place, which makes them a target for hackers who are looking to steal that information, both Tripp and Almonte say.

What’s a teacher to do?

In order to avoid having your private information get into places you don’t want it to be, Tripp advises teachers to never accept friend requests from students or their parents. “They’re the ones looking for the slightest fracture line, the slightest indication of scurrilous or immoral behavior or what they don’t think should match their children’s education.” Teachers must also be very careful about what they post on their Facebook profile, as well as pictures that they post on any of the photo sharing sites.

Remember that opinions can be formed based on loose, often innocent information you seek out. Be aware that anything you type into a web page will show up in someone’s search. “If you sign up for a newsletter on Las Vegas casino deals, someone might pull your profile on Spokeo and see that you’re interested in gambling, when all you were trying to do was take a vacation,” says Tripp. Even if someone reads something as innocuous as you purchasing a baby shower gift for a female friend, they might draw the assumption that you have a young child, he says.

You can’t control much of the information that’s out there, but there are some proactive measures you can take:

  • Secure Facebook and other social networks: Make sure your settings are “on complete lock-down,” meaning that you only share information with your friends or colleagues.
  • Promote the positive: Teachers should think about promoting issues they believe in that are strictly professional. For example, a certified reading or special needs teacher who has attended a particular seminar should not be afraid to share information in their area of expertise on a site like LinkedIn. “This is important because when someone goes looking for you on the Internet, they’ll see positive and neutral information that affirms your professional capacity,’’ says Tripp. “That’s a necessary antidote to the private and personal information poisoning.”
  • Use multiple email addresses: Teachers should also create 2 email addresses; one for close friends and family only and another that is a non-identifiable pseudonym that can be used when signing up for newsletters or opting into a group.

“Teachers should have every right to communicate and network and share with each other the same way as anyone else; they just have to be extra careful,” Tripp says.

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