Thursday, December 27, 2012

What is MyLife & Why Am I To Blame For It?

What the heck is this Mylife thing?  And how do they find out so much information about you?

If you ever Google your own name (an exercise in narcissism, but then again, so is a blog), or that of a friend or family member, you will get hits from a website called "mylife".   And if you click on the link, you will see some information about you or the person whose name you entered.  Some of it is right, some of it is wrong, and it seems alarmingly personal to some folks.

How do they get this information?  And what are they doing with it and why?  To answer the second question, you need to read this Wikipedia entry about the company, which was formerly, a website for high school reunions.   Apparently they want you to "join" the site and perhaps pay a fee.  I would recommend neither.

But how do they get this information about you?  And should you be worried that personal information is available on the Internet?  The answer to the second question is "No" and I'll explain why later.  But with regard to the first question, I think you can blame me, in part.

Data mining or data-scraping is how the site gets data.   And I prosecuted the Patent for a company that does this sort of work for and other sites.   It turns out that biographical data is formatted pretty much the same on many sites, and a smart neural-network type "learning algorithm" can be trained to fetch such data.  Train the program to recognize certain patterns and then set it loose on the Internet, and watch the fun begin.   So blame me, if you want to.   But I think data harvesting and data scraping are here to stay.

What sort of information do they collect on you?  Here is my entry on MyLife, apparently scraped from phone books and tax records, and perhaps even obituaries.
Places Lived
Jekyll Island, GA
Ledyard, NY
(912) 635-XXXX
About Robert Bell
Robert Platt Bell was born in 1960. Robert currently lives in Jekyll Island, Georgia. Before that, Robert lived in Jekyll Island, GA from 2005 to 2011. Before that, Robert lived in Ledyard, NY in 2010.
Robert Platt Bell is related to Mark See, who is 47 years old and lives in Alexandria, VA. Robert Platt Bell is also related to John Bell, who is 61 years old and lives in Cambridge, MA. 

In my case, the information is accurate - albeit incomplete.  I have run other people's names in the system and found some data inaccurate - claiming relationships to people with the same last name that are not correct.  It is interesting that after publishing online all this information that they somehow felt that the last four digits of my phone number should be blanked out.  That data is available on the online white pages and a number of other sites and indeed, is on my own website.  They have privacy concerns about my address and phone number, but not more intimate information.  Weird.

But getting back to "should you be concerned about this information being online?" I would answer "NO" and let me explain why.

First of all, people put up a lot of data about themselves online - a staggering amount and at a startling level of intimacy.  So-called self-appointed "Privacy Advocates" scream bloody murder about Google publishing a photo of us walking on a public sidewalk.    But at the same time, families put up "family websites" with photos of their children, as well as all sorts of personal information such as when they are leaving on vacation, what time they get home from work, and when little Suzie gets out of swim practice (along with a photo of Suzie in her swimsuit).  Burglars, robbers, and pedophiles could have a field day with such data - and yet people post it willingly.

And of course, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and the like take this whole concept to a new level - and then sell the data  to marketers.   People willingly "like" their favorite restaurants and products and even sign up to link what they buy to their Facebook page.  And then they scream about "privacy".

But in addition to all of that, there is something called Public Records, which are old as the hills and are now available, at least in limited form, online.   You may think you have a lot of privacy in your life, but a lot of what you do is public record, and I, or anyone else, has a legal right to those records.

A newspaper recently published the names of gun owners in their County and people got "up in arms" (sorry, again) about it.  But the information is public record and a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request is all it took to get the data.

But there are other records that are easier to find - online - without an FoIA request.

For example, property tax records are usually computerized in most Counties - as well as deed data.  Usually, the .pdf files of the actual documents are not available online, unless you sign up for a subscription service, or pay a small fee for copies of the documents.

But with the click of a mouse, I can find out how much your house is assessed for, what your property taxes are, and whether you have paid them on time.  A few more clicks and I can tell when your parents died and whether they left a will.  A few clicks later, and I can find that your no-good brother has an unsatisfied judgement against him.  These are all recorded at the public records office of most counties, and the abstracted data is available with a click of a mouse.

And if you order a copy of the will,  people can figure out how much you inherited, etc.

Before you get all riled up about this, bear in mind that such public records have been public for generations, and this is not some new "Internet Thing".   The Internet just makes such records more easy to retrieve - which may or may not be a good thing.

There is lots of other data you can download online as well.  That no-good brother, for example, has a mugshot which can be downloaded from some law enforcement sites.  And if your sister went to college, I can download an abstract of her Master's Thesis.  The list goes on and on.

And if you are good at Internet searching, you can spend about 20 minutes and pretty much parcel out how people are living, where they are living, what their income level is, and what they are doing.   And all of this is without even looking at their Facebook page or their family website, or whatever.

Of course, other sites are also goldmines for data.  Newspaper obituaries list relatives of a deceased person and their relationship, which is how MyLife no doubt found my brother (through my Mother's obituary) but for some reason left out my late Sister and other brother.  By the way, "MyLife" shows my late sister alive and well at age 63, which is sort of creepy.

Employment websites are another source of data.  Many sites have biographies of various employees, particularly if they are professionals, teachers, or the like.   With a few clicks, you can figure out where someone has been working, what they did, and what they are doing now.   And this is all without having to access LinkedIn, either.

If you "scrape" discussion groups (which you can search on Google) you might find the person commenting on a news story or on a USENET group from back in the day.   This data may fill in other areas of their background - their employment history, where they lived, etc.  This may also tell you about their political views or personal views on issues.  Product reviews (such as on Amazon) can be very illuminating, particularly when the products are books or personal items.    You can tell a lot about a person from what they post online, that is for sure.

And if you have their address (which yields all that tax data) you can look at a satellite view of their house on Google Maps, and if they have "street view" you can even see a photo of their house as well as the car in the driveway and its license number (and yes, I have done this, and it is creepy).

Now, it isn't always possible to do this, of course.  You need some seed data to start with.   If a person has a unique name (Robert Platt Bell, as opposed to Robert Bell) then it is easier to find information on them.  A fellow named "John Smith" is harder to search, unless you have a middle name and a city of residence.

The more data you have, of course, the more data you find.  If you have a full name, residence, and occupation, even the elusive "Mr. Smith" can be tracked down.

(It is funny, but I knew two couples who work or worked for the CIA, and both had a last name of Smith.  Maybe it was just a coincidence, but I always gave them a hard time about it).

So, I would not sweat "MyLife".  In fact, I think it is a classic baiting game they are playing.  They scrape all this information and package it and get you worried about it.  In fact, this seems to be a common theme among a number of sites, such as ZabaSearch and Spokeo.  They send you e-mails saying that they have all this personal information about you, and that you should sign up to "opt out" of their site and/or correct the data.

In a way, it is like the "Who is searching for you on Facebook?" scams that claim to be able to track who searches for you on Facebook, or who unfriended you, or whatever.  These sorts of pitches seem to hit an anxiety point in a lot of people, who are worried about what people are saying about them behind their back.  People, it seems, never really graduate from High School.

Of course, the easiest and cheapest way around this, is to just not give a shit what people are saying about you, or more specifically, what some robot website has scraped about you from public records.  Worry more about what you think of yourself than what others think of you.

And don't worry that your life is an "open book" as really there is no reason for secrecy in anyone's life - at least not anymore.   While you may think your life is special and private, as Facebook as shown us, most of us lead very similar and dull and boring lives.  Everyone's Facebook page looks the same.  You are not as unique and special as you might like to think.   And being weird and secret about the mundane things in your life is just creepy and a form of self-aggrandizement that shallow people use to make themselves appear to be more mysterious and deep than they really are.

So, don't sweat it.  Your life is already an open book.  And why shouldn't it be?   If nothing else, you will leave an electronic trail or legacy after you die - some indication that you existed on this planet.  Trying to be "private" really just means that you won't have existed.

That is one way of looking at it.