Privacy Is Dead

Article excerpt

Byline: Jessica Bennett

What can you learn about a person from an e-mail address? A lot, it turns out. Welcome to the credit score of the future.

Imagine you're an employer, looking to hire me for a job. You subscribe to a Web site that gives you background information, and this is what you find. Jessica Rose Bennett, 29, spends 30 hours a week on social-networking sites--while at work. She is an excessive drinker, a drug user, and sexually promiscuous. She swears a lot, and spends way beyond her means shopping online. Her writing ability? Superior. Cost to hire? Cheap.

In reality, only part of this is true: yes, I like a good bourbon. But drugs? That comes from my reporting projects--and one in particular that took me to a pot farm in California. The promiscuity? My boyfriend of five years (that's him above) would beg to differ on that, but I did once write a story about polyamory. I do spend hours on social-networking sites, but it's part of my job. And I'm not nearly as cheap to hire as the Web would have you believe. (Take note, future employers!)

The irony, of course, is that if this were a real job search, none of this would matter--I'd have already lost the job. But this is the kind of information surmisable to anybody with a Web connection and a bit of background data who wants to take the time to compile it all. For this particular experiment, we asked ReputationDefender, a company that works to keep information like this private, to do a scrub of the Web, with nothing but my (very common) name and e-mail address to go on. Three Silicon Valley engineers, several decades of experience, and access to publicly available databases like Spokeo, Facebook, and LinkedIn (no, they didn't do any hacking)--and voila. Within 30 minutes, the company had my Social Security number; in two hours, they knew where I lived, my body type, my hometown, and my health status. (Note: this isn't part of ReputationDefender's service; they did the search exclusively for NEWSWEEK to show how much about a person is out there for the taking.)

It's scary stuff, but scarier when you realize it's the kind of information that credit-card companies and data aggregators are already selling, for pennies, to advertisers every day. Or that it's the kind of data, as The Wall Street Journal revealed last week, that's being blasted to third parties when you download certain apps on Facebook. (Under close watch by Congress, Facebook has said it's working to "dramatically limit" its users' personal exposure.) "Most people are still under the illusion that when they go online, they're anonymous," says Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. …