Who are you?

Keith February 23rd, 2010

There was some recent discussion at actKM about automated online profiling systems.  These systems trawl the net collecting information on people by name, and put together a “profile” of the person.  This can have interesting results.  A single person can end up with multiple disconnected profiles; or many people with similar names may find themselves merged into a single profile.

Some of these systems allow you to take control of your profile, and edit and update it.  The business models used by these sites can also be interesting.  Some are free, and offer premium services for a fee.  Some only allow you to take control of your profile for a certain fee. The information collated on the site may include details that are correct or incorrect; and the information may be current or out of date.

One that I have registered with is ZoomInfo, which allows me to log in and take control of my profile free of charge. I have been able to clean up the information there – although since my first clean-up, a heap more out-of-date info has been added, and a second profile created based on a mere mention of my name on another site with a link to a blog post here.  I have been able to easily merge this in to my existing profile. (Although some of the changes I made today may still take some time to appear on the site!) The site also keeps cached copy of the content that they found my name in – some of which is now up to four years old, and no longer exists at the original site. It seems that although I can edit my profile, I have no control over what out-of-date info they store about me in their cache. 

This has mostly been a positive experience, although I don’t remember seeing a lot of security to stop anyone else (whether of the same name or not) taking control of a profile.

I did once have a similar experience with a site called “Spock”, which seems to now have been subsumed into “Intelius“, purporting to be “The world’s largest and most accurate public record source.”  Although this does still provide links to some relevant sites on the search results, it no longer gives me any control over a profile, and all of the  “more detail” links refer to a name only vaguely like mine, and all results are within the USA. This seems to me to be a rather limited view of “the world” – as I understand it, the USA only accounts for 4.5% of the world’s population (according to the US Census Bureau).  However, for those in the USA, the sort of information stored here can supposedly include criminal records and “background checks”, which you have no apparent control over. 

This trend highlights the great benefit of occasionally searching for your own name on the net – that’s how I found out about ZoomInfo. It’s worth occasionally finding out what others are saying about you online. However, this is easy for someone with a name like mine – a Scottish first name and a French surname. So far as I know, I am still the only “Keith De La Rue” on the net. I pity all the “John Smiths” out there, and those with names of similar popularity of other ethnicities. (The secret is to choose your parents wisely – or change your name!) 

The appearance of sites that gather personal info without allowing you any control is a disturbing trend. Given the nature of the Internet, I don’t see that an awful lot that can be done to directly stop it. I don’t believe that there is any particular “authority” that can regulate this somewhat unethical behaviour globally. Whatever happened to Identity 2.0?

In the meantime, I believe that it is worth taking control of your own online identity on these systems where possible, provided that you are not exposing yourself to other forms of unethical behaviour when you do.

Without wanting to make light of the topic, I wonder if there will be a trend in future to give children more unique names to help them to have a globally unique online identity? Maybe ICANN should take a role in personal names as well?

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