I Tried to Get My Name off People-Search Sites. It Was Nearly Impossible.
As a child in the 1980s, I remember staring at my mother’s listing in the white pages, which back then was an actual book issued by the phone company and printed on white paper. The entry revealed our phone number, but the address line was blank, and the spot for a first name held only my mother’s initial. She was single and working as an immigrant-rights advocate in Minneapolis. Before omitting her address, she’d gotten hate mail. She worried about being targeted by creeps. “I don’t want people to think that it’s a woman living here alone,” she told me.
A generation on, women and vulnerable groups can add online harassment to the threats faced by our mothers and grandmothers. As a journalist I have covered conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and militant nationalists, and like many women who occupy public positions, I’ve been the target of vicious social media and email messages. As the reaction to recent Black Lives Matter protests has underscored, the threat faced by women of color is even more acute. And yet, as I discovered when I tried to conceal the details of my life from public view, going unlisted is now a herculean task. In most cases, it doesn’t take a police union tweeting your personal information—as happened to Chiara de Blasio, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter—for it to surface. It’s out there in plain view.
People-search sites such as Intelius, MyLife, and Spokeo now number in the hundreds, collecting data on most of us. The modern-day descendant of the phone book, they scrape phone numbers, email addresses, and lots of other personal information from public records, then sell them online to anyone with a credit card.
When I Googled my name a few months ago, the search results filled several pages. The sites even hawked an address where I lived for a short time—15 years ago.
People-search sites can be useful. They help police locate suspects, reconnect people with long-lost friends, and aid adoptees in finding their birth parents. I have used them myself as a reporter to find contact information for sources.
But these sites can create serious hazards, too. They often encourage voyeurism with come-ons such as, “Arrest Records, Marriage Records, Contact Information and More!” and “We’ve uncovered sensitive personal information about Mara.” They can be used to commit identity theft and to dox people, publicizing sensitive or personal information to make someone a target for harassment or violence. They can lead stalkers to victims or escalate online harassment to real-world assault. These sites make it almost impossible to hide.
Jessica Tunon fled an emotionally abusive relationship in Florida in 2007. She moved to Virginia and eventually got a new job, but her former partner kept contacting her. When she changed her email address and phone number, he switched to messaging her on Twitter and LinkedIn. She filed a civil protection order against her harasser, but she knew she wasn’t safe while he could still find her address online. Through her sister, who once worked for a data broker, Tunon had learned just how much personal information was available to anyone through a quick web search.
Feeling scared and helpless, Tunon embarked on a campaign to scrub her contact information from the internet. For the next few years, she spent roughly 2 hours a week researching the subject, learning how to petition data brokers and other institutions to keep her information out of her former partner’s hands. In some cases she had to speak with several employees at the same company before a site agreed to remove her information. Other companies required her to send in a copy of the civil protection order. “Everything you do, you have to reshare your story,” she says. Tunon had started her quest hoping to distance herself from a traumatizing situation, but instead she was continually forced to relive it.
Last fall, I set out on a journey of my own. As I prepared to publish my second book, I began removing myself from these databases, only to discover that sites like WhitePages.com are much more pernicious than the printed white pages of old. My first book, "Unnatural Selection," dealt with abortion and annoyed a small but vocal set of people, including a man who sent me a threatening Facebook message, promising to physically confront me at a reading. (My publisher scrambled to tighten security for the event, but the man didn’t show up.) At the time, I was living in the Netherlands, where there are more regulations protecting data privacy, and my personal information wasn’t readily available. This time around, I’d written a book on the U.S. government’s response to Chinese industrial espionage. Titled "The Scientist and the Spy," it detailed allegations of racism within the FBI. I expected that it might also upset some people. And I was living in the United States, where a trail of public records made me much easier to find.
Removing personal information from data brokers felt like a wise precaution for me, but for others it’s absolutely essential. “We receive a steady stream of calls from people of all walks of life, all ages, and all states looking to get off of the data broker sites,” says Pam Dixon, executive director of the public interest research group World Privacy Forum (WPF). “And there’s not an easy way to do it. They present profound safety issues.”
Victims of stalking or domestic violence can’t even find safety by fleeing to a relative’s house, because many people-search sites publish the names and addresses of family members.
As Tunon found, concealing yourself from public view is complicated and time-consuming. You can’t do it by making a single phone call or filling out a single form, the way my mother did. In most states, data brokers are not even legally obligated to allow people to opt out of such tracking. And while many sites do offer some way to remove yourself, each has a uniquely labyrinthine process that’s often hard to find out about, much less navigate. It is far easier to buy the criminal records of all your neighbors than it is to scrub your personal details from these sites.
The WPF and other organizations have published information to help people get started deleting their data from many services. I used the Big Ass Data Broker Opt-Out List, compiled by journalist Yael Grauer. (Grauer also wrote CR’s story on how to remove yourself from people-search sites.) I filled out online forms and sent off a slew of emails, starting with the larger data collection companies. One major player, Acxiom, combines publicly available information with details gleaned from online surveys, purchase histories, and website registrations. (It also analyzes consumer data and sells it to companies. When I obtained my Acxiom file in 2017 while working on an article on credit brokers, it was disturbingly inaccurate, assigning me the wrong education level and marital status, and describing me as a “likely Las Vegas gambler.”)
To track my efforts, I kept a log on opting out as I worked. “Spokeo—submitted with email confirmation,” I wrote last fall. Then, later that day: “Radaris—claimed profile—deleted relevant records and made private.” Some sites asked me to enter a current phone number or email address to remove my data, which felt like extortion. Others asked me to register and create a password to “control” my information, without giving me the option to delete it entirely. A few even required me to pick up the phone, send snail mail, or—get this—fax in my request. Where do you even find a fax machine these days?
The data brokers claim they need those personal details to remove an individual’s data. “For the suppression to be accurate, it is requested that the individual provide all variations of their full name,” Acxiom spokesperson Matt Ramsey wrote in an email. “That might include nicknames, former names, married name, common spellings or misspellings.”
No two of these convoluted procedures seem to be alike. People who track the problem estimate that it can take from six business days to two weeks of full-time work to delete your data from data brokers’ sites. I made opting out a hobby, picking it up whenever my work was slow, and the process ended up spanning months. Grauer told me that opting out is so arduous, in the days before the coronavirus she considered hosting opt-out parties, where attendees would remove themselves from people-search sites while socializing and listening to music.
Because people-search sites often get acquired by other companies, I had trouble keeping track of which was which. The opt-out processes frequently changed, too. Worse yet, the companies were continually trawling driver’s license registration records, voter registration databases, and address information from the U.S. Postal Service, creating listings to replace the ones I had removed. It all struck me as deeply unfair. Data brokers were making money off me, but I never volunteered to be turned into a product.
Even Pam Dixon at the WPF had trouble removing her personal information from these sites—and she works on privacy issues for a living. Ultimately, I caved in and joined a service called DeleteMe that charges $129 per year for suppressing information that should be protected to begin with. (Reputation Defender and OneRep offer similar services.) That didn’t fully resolve the problem—even dedicated services miss some people-search sites. And such subscriptions are not an option for many people, especially at a moment when many Americans have lost their jobs or experienced pay cuts. “Privacy cannot be just for rich people and the privileged," Dixon says. "We need to offer free opt-outs that are easy, effective, and that last.”
Spokeo CEO Harrison Tang says the company has strived to offer a straightforward opt-out process. “At the end of the day it’s about control,” he says. But Tang acknowledges that Spokeo profiles are partially generated from public records that are constantly updated. That’s part of the reason that listings can keep popping up even for people who don’t want their data to appear on the site.
Jessica Tunon now lives in Washington, D.C., where she is constantly vigilant about trying to minimize the personal information she shares with any agency that feeds public records. It’s an ongoing struggle. When she started a business out of her home—the networking and wellness company Netwalking—the district’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs required a physical address. She registered with one but then fought to have it replaced with a P.O. box; the effort took five years. Out of caution, she refrained from doing any marketing in the meantime. “The hardest thing was not being able to work on my company because my address was online,” she says.
Tunon subsequently helped push for an address confidentiality program in Washington, D.C., which began in 2018. It allows survivors of domestic abuse, stalking, sexual assault, and human trafficking to receive mail at a dummy address. A handful of states have laws on the books that regulate people-search sites. Vermont has required data brokers to register with the secretary of state since Jan. 1, 2019, a measure that takes the first step of exposing which outfits are profiting off people’s data. Assistant attorney general Ryan Kriger, who helped shape the Vermont law, says industry lobbyists fought it tooth and nail. “The data broker industry had never been regulated before, and they wanted to keep it that way,” Kriger says. “This is the only industry I can think of that flourishes by not having anyone know they exist.”
Today, Tunon says, her information continues to pop up on people-search sites, prompting her to regularly Google herself to check what has leaked through. She has become an expert in all this, but what happens to someone who speaks minimal English? Who doesn’t have a steady internet connection? Who can’t spend months removing their information because they face immediate threats?
Before I started paying to keep my data safe, I found my information reappearing online, too. Five months after opting out from one data broker, my profile reappeared. When I clicked on my name, the page showed a satellite photo of a house where I had once lived. I imagined people across America encountering similar images of their homes, as they sat at their computers, trying desperately to keep the information offline.