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Google’s Data-Hungry Ecosystem is Threatening Your Privacy. Here’s How. by@dimitrishelest

Google’s Data-Hungry Ecosystem is Threatening Your Privacy. Here’s How.

Dimitri Shelest HackerNoon profile picture

Dimitri Shelest

Tech entrepreneur, founder and CEO @ OneRep.

As you read this, Google is actively encouraging the exposure of your private information via its data practises. Think, your address, credit score, shopping habits, parents’ names, voter records and much more.

The niche industry feeding your private information to Google isn’t hidden. Most internet users just overlook it. So here’s the story — the reason why you’re much more exposed online than you may realize (and what you can do about it).

The Scene: An Industry Built On Your Private Information

Before I founded OneRep, a privacy protection service that removes sensitive information from the web, I was an SEO consultant. It was then when I discovered a fascinating niche of websites entirely devoted to exposing people’s private lives. These destinations are called “people-search sites.” PeopleFinders, WhitePages, MyLife, InstantCheckmate and GladIKnow are some you may recognize.

The sites compile and publish profiles with details collected from public records and consumer databases. They include valuable, sensitive information, such as:

  • names and aliases

  • dates of birth

  • phone numbers

  • home addresses

  • social media accounts and usernames

  • family ties

  • political affiliations

  • financial records

  • criminal records

  • hobbies, etc.

According to SimilarWeb, sites like WhitePages, Spokeo, and BeenVerified get 20–50 million visitors monthly. People want to know that their new neighbor or next Tinder date isn’t a maniac, after all. There are also millions of searches on influencers and celebrities.

Add up these queries, and the people-search industry gets a collective billion free Google clicks a month. With an average cost per click in Google Ads between $1 and $2, the profit potential is enticing, and the competition is fierce.

But people-search sites all pull information from the same source — public records. So how do the top-performing ones convince Google that they have the most relevant and unique content about your next boss, your new friend, your ex-spouse, or you? I’ve been watching people-search sites for half a decade, and here’s the disturbing answer:

Each year they release more and more private information about you for free. People-search sites are doing this because Google’s algorithm encourages it. Here’s the breakdown in three acts.

Act One: People-Search Sites Dip Their Toes In Your Privacy

When we started OneRep six years ago, most of the private information on people-search site profiles was pay-walled. You could search your name, and Google would return WhitePages or Spokeo profiles about you. But you needed to pay a subscription if you wanted the full report.

People-search sites kept your address, criminal record, and phone number hidden. Google bots couldn’t even index this additional information. The sites exposed your name, city of residence, and relatives for free, but that was it. Competition became even more ethically fraught when new players got Google-savvy and changed the game.

Act Two: Your Information Becomes The Leverage

About 3-4 year ago, darkhorse people-search sites entered the scene and rewrote the playbook. They gave Google permission to index the addresses and phone numbers of millions of Americans. Google loved this and also used this chance to pull phone numbers and addresses right into headlines to make that information visible before you even click the link. The newcomers to the people-search scene won the SEO spoils: top rankings and free traffic.

Google’s AI-powered ranking algorithms demanded unique content, and these new people-search sites delivered. Websites like TruePeopleSearch, FastPeopleSearch, and Clustrmaps leaped ahead of the pack, modeling a strategy that wins at Google but fails to protect consumer privacy.

Act Three: Enter Consumer Databases

In 2020, people-search sites added another trick to their arsenal. They began releasing data they acquired from consumer and marketing databases. This data reveals your purchasing behavior, and other information that touches on almost every part of your personal life.

Information from consumer databases makes the free versions of people-search profiles much more complete. You can type in a person’s name and besides their full name, home address and phone number, you’ll see their occupation, education level, income, credit score, hobbies, political views, and more.

Right now, people-search sites are mining consumer records and public records for gold: your private information. They’re doing this because Google’s algorithm rewards them for it. After all, what could be more unique than your cell phone number, home address, mother’s name, and preference between cats and dogs?

Act Four is Coming: Consumers Fight Back (By Reading the Terms of Service)

I’m neck-deep in the wild world of data and privacy, and the trend I see is worrisome.

Every year, governments and businesses double the personal information they collect and expose. Fortunately, a growing segment of the public is taking notice. As a tech entrepreneur, I’ve come to believe that we can’t just expect privacy anymore. As unfair as it may seem, each of us must make a conscious choice to create and protect our digital privacy. Taking the necessary precautions to protect your information is work. But neglecting to do so can lead to an array of privacy-related risks, including a growing one of identity theft, and even home attacks instigated by political confrontations.

You may find all the motivation you need to take your privacy into your own hands by completing this quick (and unsettling) exercise:

Google your first name + last name + city + state.

Take inventory of the quantity and accuracy of personal information about you and your household displayed online. That information is just a five-second Google search away from scammers, hackers, and everyone else out there.

The good news is that you can address this situation by removing yourself from sites that publish your data. The Internet is full of helpful advice on how to do that. You can also use these free DIY guides we made to help you opt out.

My last tip for privacy-minded folks? Don’t disclose any personal information unless absolutely necessary and take time to review the terms of service on a digital purchase or account sign-up. Those terms will tell you precisely what the company plans to do with your data. After all, you don’t have to let your information fall into a third-party hands, including those of data brokers. You can keep it in yours.