Despite the frenzy online, FamilyTreeNow.com isn’t the only site that should leave social media users feeling exposed, experts said. Sites like whitepages.com, Spokeo.com and Pipl.com collect your information too.
FamilyTreeNow is a free genealogy site that lists personal information like addresses and suggests possible associates, in some cases children. Since the site was the subject of an article posted to The Washington Post’s website on Jan. 12, social media users have been warning each other to opt out of it. FamilyTreeNow has since posted a notice that it was experiencing a “high volume” of opt-out requests and the process would take longer than usual.
But dozens of other websites offer similar information. Whitepages has built a database of information on 300 million people in the last 20 years, the company said. FamilyTreeNow is just part of a larger sharing economy and growing conversation about digital privacy, experts said.
“I can find basic information about people and their associates and family members on a number of sites,” said Karen Sobel-Lojeski, a professor in Stony Brook’s Department of Technology and Society. “I think people have to assume that everything about them, including their health records, financial information, are all available out there.”
- On Whitepages.com, any user can find phone numbers, addresses and possible associates. But users who pay for one of its upgraded memberships have access to more information, like criminal history and email addresses. Users can send an opt out request to be removed from most of the site, though identity information is not removed from Whitepages Pro, a buisness-only fraud monitoring tool.
- At Spokeo.com, users can pay for phone numbers and address history but names, ages and associates are available free. Users can choose to opt out at spokeo.com/help/remove.
- Pipl.com will index social media profiles and work history for free. Pipl said it cannot remove information because its systems index publicly available links; users who wish to be removed from the site are advised to remove the source profiles.
- LexisNexis draws addresses, phone numbers, associates and legal histories for a subscription fee. The company will remove information in certain cases.
- Intelius.com compiles similar background reports for a base charge of $3.95. Users can opt out at intelius.com/optout.
Privacy advocate Peter Micek said these sites are emblematic of the need for greater regulation of what information sharing is allowed. He said despite the fact that much of this information is public record, he understands why people have been surprised to find it online.
“This is not something that should be happening and this doesn’t conform with our right to privacy and our expectation to privacy,” said Micek, global policy and legal counsel for Access Now, a global digital rights organization, and communications policy lecturer at Columbia University.
It’s nearly impossible to wipe yourself from the internet, Sobel-Lojeski said. Directory information is only one small piece of what’s known as a digital footprint, or a person’s overall presence on the internet. Social media, accounts for various services and software that track your internet habits all contribute to that footprint.
“There may be a concern that websites have landlines and address info but a lot of what consumers are posting is much more vital,” said Tom Donlea, marketing vice president for Seattle-based Whitepages Pro.
The company behind FamilyTreeNow.com did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Micek said users have to be as vigilant as they can and opt out of sites that want their personal information. He recommends trying user-friendly programs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation Privacy Badger or Ghostery, browser extensions that can help shake off trackers and background data collection while you’re online.
Experts recommend calling for regulatory action, both Micek and Sobel-Lojeski said.
“People are going to have to make laws against if they want to stop it,” Sobel-Lojeski said. “But they also have to accept today that anything anyone wants to find out about them is available for free or for a very minimal fee.”
Farmingdale resident Theresa Okin said she opted out of Whitepages years ago and keeps security tight on Facebook, her only social media profile. However, she hadn’t realized just how accessible her information still was until she saw a Facebook post about FamilyTreeNow.
“I don’t want my personal information out there where it would lend its hand to someone possibly stealing my identity,” Okin, 36, said. “I don’t feel comfortable with those connections being out there without me knowing about it.”