Your Democratic Party affiliation, $43,000 annual income and ’96 Honda Civic — they’re all public information. And your mug shots? Yes, those are public, too. Whether you’re convicted or not, sites can archive those photos – forever.
Personal information can come from voter registration files, real estate records and DMV archives — even phone books. It also comes from credit card companies, cable companies and stock companies. And then there are social network pages like Facebook, which can be loaded with personal information.
Data brokers collect personal information piece by piece, package it, and sell it to third parties. Before long, that information pops up on dozens of people-search websites that are used by employers to run background checks, by marketers, and even by private investigators.
Enter Safe Shepherd, a private web service company that finds and removes public personal information from websites that sell it. The company’s chief executive officer, Robert Leshner, and chief technology officer, Geoff Hayes, cofounded the company in 2011 and developed an automated service to streamline the process. With 16,000 paying members and 150,000 records scrubbed to date, the company is headquartered on Cesar Chavez in the Mission District.
“It’s not that [this information] hasn’t been available,” said Samantha Leland, a privacy lawyer and policy director at Safe Shepherd. “It’s that it hasn’t been available on a wide scale.” With the advent of the Internet, with its “free and open” ethic, it has become challenging to keep information private — especially since paper records are now digitized.
“The Internet never forgets,” said Hayes.
The leading data broker website Intelius claims to have records for about 225 million unique individuals. According to Leland, many of the smaller people-search websites are powered by the same databases that are compiled by larger people-search sites.
Easy access to these sites gives stalkers and identity thieves easy leads. Annually, 3.4 million Americans are victims of stalkers, according to the Network of Victim Assistance. Stalkers can use the Internet to expose private information and threaten victims on message and discussion boards.
The Federal Trade Commission issued a privacy report last year urging Congress to require data brokers to “identify themselves to consumers and describe how they collect and use consumer data.”
It is possible to opt out from information broker sites, but the process of removing the data is slow — perhaps purposefully so — requiring snail mail and fax communications. The Safe Shepherd team can accelerate that process.
While the team members are all of the millennial generation, many of their clients are baby boomers — “middle-aged, slightly older, slightly female,” Leshner said. Often they are women who are surprised to see their age online and want it removed, said Hayes, or parents who are surprised to see their home addresses and home phone numbers online. “It triggers a protective instinct in them,” he said.
Safety isn’t their only concern. According to an Internet study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of parents of teens are concerned about how their child manages his or her reputation online.
The younger generation, Leshner said, is affected by overconfidence in the Internet. “We consider ourselves the masters of our Internet activity, rightfully or wrongfully.” Young people, unlike older generations, feel they’re able to control their own data.
“We service mainstream Americans as opposed to dot-commers,” Hayes said. “We don’t have a web 2.0 name that ends in .ly, and that’s OK, because that’s not who our audience is.”
That’s not to say that young people aren’t using the service or aren’t aware of their social media exhaust. Outside Arizmendi Bakery, 21-year-old Nicole D. said she keeps her Instagram profile private. She wouldn’t want her bosses to stumble upon it. “I have a lot of crazy things going,” she said, “and I gotta keep it clean.”
Down by the Crepe House, Parisian Sonia G. said she’s reluctant to give out personal details. “Unless I really like something online, I usually won’t give my personal information.” Data from a 2012 Pew Research Center privacy report indicates she’s not alone — 54 percent of app users have decided not to install an app when they realized how much personal information it asked of them.
Missionite Stefan Aronsen isn’t afraid of people knowing he has a brother or sister when he posts to Facebook. “I just don’t want them knowing my financial info.”
There used to be about 15 online privacy companies, Leshner said, but today there are just three major ones: Reputation.com, Abine.com and SafeShepherd.com. “The idea of privacy being a service is relativity new,” he said.
Safe Shepherd’s paid membership is growing by 20 percent per month, Leshner said. Leland, the company’s policy director, works with VIP paying members like CEOs and public figures who upgrade from the free service to $250 a month.
Leland does reputation management and monitors VIPs’ online information — working, for example, to stop potential stalkers from finding clients’ home addresses. People-search websites repost information even if a user has decided to opt out, so the VIP service is subscription-based rather than a one-time deal.
To protect your online privacy, Leshner recommends removing personal data from people-search sites and databases that are in the business of buying and selling information. He also suggests minimizing your use of social networks, tightening your privacy settings and not signing up for rewards that require you to provide an address and cell phone number.
“For physical, safety and privacy reasons, you need to control what gets said and seen about you.”