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Regaining control of your online data

Ben Johnson Nov 18, 2014

Regaining control of your online data

Ben Johnson Nov 18, 2014

When a strange man knocked on her door three years ago, Susan Manion decided to do more to protect her private information. As a musician in Northern Illinois, she was used to people getting in touch. But her work had started to draw unwanted attention.

“It wasn’t a stalker,” says Manion. She thinks the man wanted to collaborate, but her doorstep was the wrong place. “We didn’t want something like that happening again. It creeped me out.”

Manion signed up for DeleteMe, a service from a company called Abine. Abine promises to “remove your public profile from leading data sites.” Your public data profile can include photos of your house or family, your address and contact information. Manion has paid for Abine’s service for two years and says her home address and phone number are less likely to pop up in search results.

Nearly 25 years after the first publicly viewable website appeared, the culture of sharing on the Internet is changing. Privacy and anonymity are crucial features of new social apps like Secret, Whisper and Canary. A growing number of websites also offer services that help protect, maintain or even erase what is fast becoming your most permanent and accessible record: data that can be gleaned about you from search engine results.

These businesses are responding to what they see as evolving consumer interest. This month, a report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found varying attitudes around privacy but a consensus around the challenges of managing personal information online.

“There’s this overwhelming sense that consumers feel they’ve lost control over the way their data is used by companies,” says Mary Madden, a senior researcher at Pew.

That is exactly what people like Rob Shavell, Abine’s chief executive, are banking on. When Shavell and his co-founders started the company in 2009, financing was not easy to find. Investors didn’t think young users cared about privacy. But Shavell said that in the last six months, Abine has faced more competition than in its first four years.

“That exact group that investors told us would never care, they’re moving from Facebook to Snapchat,” Shavell said, referring to the app that allows users to send each other messages that disappear right after delivery. “They do all kinds of things to make sure they’re managing their online identities in such a way that it’s not going to have so many negative ramifications.”

Other data companies are pivoting. MyLife.com began as Reunion.com in 2002, helping users connect with old classmates and friends. Then Facebook happened.

“As Facebook became so popular, we realized there wasn’t as much of a need for our services,” said Jeffrey Tinsley, the company’s chief executive. “So we looked for other opportunities.”

That road has had bumpy stretches. The firm was criticized for mining the email address books of some of its 52 million users for new customers. Tinsley realized the script on privacy had flipped. So he changed his business model to helping users try to manage their public data online.

“Three years ago, 75 percent of our revenue was public profile stuff and maybe 25 percent was helping people take it down,” he said. “Now it’s the exact opposite.”

To deliver for their customers, subscription services like Abine and MyLife use organized, repeated pressure. They go to top data broker websites like Spokeo.com, which collects information, then creates and sells profiles on consumers. They fill out removal forms on behalf of users. But the result is never a full cleanup.

“The options for getting facts and personal information removed once it’s been posted online in the U.S. are fairly limited,” says Christopher T. Bavitz, managing director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School. “It’s very challenging to regulate the spread of this kind of information, but it’s challenging for very good reasons. The first good reason is the First Amendment.”

Users’ control over information has fared better in Europe after a May ruling from the European Court of Justice on the so-called right to be forgotten. That allows users to petition search engines to remove outdated or incorrect information about them. Google reports receiving 163,000 requests and approving 41 percent.

A growing chorus of voices is worried that the emergence of paid services that promise to clean up data could result in another case of the haves and have-nots. Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington, said many states sold, rented or granted access to criminal records and other information to third-party data brokers.

“If a juvenile commits a crime but doesn’t reoffend, they might have the right to get the state’s record sealed or expunged,” Calo said. “But the user doesn’t have the same right to access when it comes to the data broker.”

Calo worries that these sorts of arrangements disproportionately affect populations that cannot afford to pay even once, let alone for the subscription fee that many services charge.

If you ask Philip R. Zimmermann whether money can buy back privacy, he will laugh and point to a paradox. If money is no object, he said, you are too famous to escape the Internet anyway. Zimmermann created Pretty Good Privacy, or P.G.P., a widely used email encryption program, in 1991. He now runs Silent Circle, a company that promises encrypted communication and offers the $629 Blackphone, a smartphone that features a custom operating system and applications.

Silent Circle tries to protect a user’s privacy out of the gate, instead of acting as a cleaning service. Encryption can make it more difficult for your data to be mined and published around the Web. When it comes to cleaning up information that is already public, however, Mr. Zimmermann recalled the plutonium contamination at the Rocky Flats Plant nuclear weapons facility in Colorado.

“It gets into the soil,” he said. “If you’re a person that’s not of any interest to anyone, then maybe your information exists only on a couple of servers. Maybe. But once it’s out, it’s pretty hard to get it cleaned up. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.”

This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.” 

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