You might remember a time when it was commonplace to look up someone’s phone number or address in the phone book.
Phone books, for the most part, are a thing of the past, and today, much of that information is available online.
While these websites can be handy if you’re looking to make sure that someone you’re hiring or meeting with is who they say they are, many people have raised privacy concerns about their contact information being available with just a quick internet search.
“In the past, we were protected by, if you wanted access to these public records, you would have to have a copy of the Whitepages directly yourself or go to the public library to look them up,” said Dr. Jennifer King, an expert on data privacy at the law school at Stanford University.
She says these websites gather our information from public records, many of which are available online. Records websites can get our information from property records, voting registries, and even divorce decrees.
Since this information is all public, it's legal to post it without your permission.
Dr. Bernard Chao is a former Silicon Valley lawyer who now teaches at The University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. He says a conversation that has come up in his classes is whether all public information should be accessible with just an online search.
"It took so much effort to get the information. You wouldn't go down to the courthouse to find out whether your neighbor's divorce was messy or not. I mean it just wasn't worth it, but you might Google that," Chao explained. "Maybe that's information we want private even though previously you could have gotten the information with a lot of effort."
We reached out to five people finding websites with questions about how they get the information that is on their sites: Whitepages.com, Nuwber.com, OfficialUSA.com, Truepeoplesearch.com, and Clustrmaps.com.
Clustrmaps.com is the only one that responded with answers. It says it hopes the site can be used to help old friends reunite. The company said it gathers its information from hundreds of data sources, like property records and it also pays third parties for information gathered across the web.
We asked about the privacy concerns people may have with their information being on their site, the company stated there is a free opt-out option people can use to get their information taken down. Opting out is a feature offered on many people finding websites.
Chao says opting out of each one would be a chore.
"I don't think normal people have time to do that," Chao said.
There are services like DeleteMe, which for around $19 a month will wipe your name from Google searches.
"Even if you use those tools, it might not plug all the holes and there still might be data available that someone hunting could find," King said.
While states like California, Colorado, and Illinois have passed laws in recent years surrounding data privacy, Chao says lawmakers have not been able to pass meaningful legislation on the federal level.
"I think it is very hard to have any framework where it is on the individual to contact multiple entities to ensure their privacy," Chao said. "I think we need to have laws that say you don't have to do that. We have to have it the other way. The default is no your information is private and if you really, really, really want this, you’re going to have to get it from the individual.”