Techno Mama: Is there such a thing as online privacy?

By Sarah Martin Hood

spokeo_logo_168-47-jpg.jpgMany of us share our thoughts and daily goings on via a family blog or Facebook photos. We post photos of family vacations, school graduations, playing in neighborhood parks, and local sporting events. Often we don’t think twice about what these things can mean for our family’s privacy. And there are a few new websites cropping up that are making many moms take a second look at their online activities.

Spokeo is just one of a handful of sites that have recently made headlines for the way it packages your personal information and offers it to users. Spokeo uses a unique technology to piece together information that is already out there on the internet, and they offer it all in one place. From their website – where they refer to themselves as “Not your grandma’s phonebook.”:

Spokeo is a search engine specialized in organizing people-related information from phone books, social networks, marketing lists, business sites, and other public sources. Most of this data is publicly available on the Web.  For example, you can find people’s name, phone, and address on, and you can get home values from  That said, only Spokeo’s algorithm can piece together the scattered data into coherent people profiles, giving you the most comprehensive intelligence about anyone you want to find.


 Spokeo is different because it indexes information that no other search engine does. Spokeo aggregates data from hundreds of online and offline sources, including but not limited to: phone directories, social networks, marketing surveys, mailing lists, government census, real estate listings, and business websites. All data is publicly available, so anyone can access them from their respective sources. However, putting all the data pieces together would take you months. Spokeo automates the data aggregation for you and makes it FREE.

Go ahead. Try it. It’s as easy as using Google. Type your name into the search box on — see what happens. It took me about 2 seconds to find myself – and discover that, indeed, they have a few pieces of information on one Mrs. Sarah Hood. But, honestly, for every field that is correct, there’s one that’s incorrect. Spokeo doesn’t seem to know about the child I’ve had for 2 years now, or the husband I’ve had for almost 4! But I don’t mind – too much. It’s fun to see what they’ve put together about little ole me – and I have to admit I spent several minutes looking up most of my family members – just for fun.

Though this is initially a little alarming, it’s important to keep this kind of thing in perspective and to remember that sites like Spokeo are not doing anything illegal. The information they collect then turn around and offer to members is public information and would not exist on the web if people didn’t share it. They don’t have your social security number or your driver’s license or your bank account information. They only have the “harmless” stuff that most people don’t think twice about putting in an online profile — age, marital status, location, photos.

So what in the world should you do about this? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Go private. I’ve noticed a recent trend among many of the blogs I follow — many are going private. Moms are protecting their family stories and photos with a password distributed only to family and close friends – so they know exactly who has access to their family and its information. This option isn’t for everyone, but maybe it’s right for you.
  • Read the fine print. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have Terms of Use that you must agree to uphold before you open your account.  READ the Terms of Use. They will tell you exactly what you’re getting into, and may help you to know where you should probe a little deeper before signing on the dotted line.
  • Opt out. Find out what it takes to protect your information on these sites. It’s often easier than you think. In fact, here’s the link to opt out of Spokeo. Easy as pie. But remember that removing your “profile” from Spokeo is only a small step — because it doesn’t remove your information from third-party sites. To truly protect your information, you’ll need to be diligent about changing your privacy settings on Facebook and MySpace and any other sites you frequent.
  • Know what your kiddos are up to. Kids are much more trusting than we are. Your teens and tweens may not think twice about posting information that you and I would know is potentially risky for them, i.e. address, age, last name. So take a look over their shoulder and be sure they’re having fun but being cautious with their online identities.

The reality is that the bad guys can get your info if they know where to look – and, honestly, they know where to look. But keep things in perspective. As thieves and crooks get craftier, identity protection gets even craftier. Think about all the passwords and security questions and pin numbers you have for all your important stuff!

Be cautious and reasonable, and take the appropriate steps for your own family’s privacy. And have fun out there!

sarah-hood-technomamamugshotthumbnailthumbnail.jpgSarah would love to hear from you with questions or feedback regarding gadgets, technology, or blogging. You can also stop by Sarah’s personal blog, Musings of Mother Hood to say hello. To read previous installments of Techno Mama, click here!