Exploration of My Data Identity
My investigation of my online identity led me to see how an individual's data can be exploited by data brokers at the expense of our privacy, safety, money, and reputation.
When I first Googled my name, links to my social media such as LinkedIn and Instagram were some of the first to be listed. I rarely post on social media and tend to keep my profiles private, so I assumed little would be found. I believe that it is a privilege to get to know someone and posting every detail of your life gives others the chance to make superficial judgments on your character. As I continue scanning through the search result pages, I come across other content, such as my LinkedIn profile picture, and my grandfather’s obituary, which contained a family photo of us. Other than those two instances, I seemed to be relativity hidden in the eyes of Google. What I didn’t expect to find was the numerous counts of online users with my same name. Facebook lists over twenty other profiles, originating in the U.S. and outside, with the name set as Erika Kohl, none of which are mine. The content posted from these other Erika’s varies greatly: YouTube playlists of German rap music, a published self-help book, obituaries, Pinterest boards, and more.
While it is uncanny to see my picture appear on the first page of results on Google Images, I remember that it’s only a profile picture from my LinkedIn account that I made public by choice, and my credentials are restricted to LinkedIn users. But this led me to wonder about the other information that may be out there about me, and how easy would it be to find it. I tried to take my exploration of my online data identity a step further and use a people-search website, which is a type of data broker website. These sites collect information from public records, online sources, and commercial sources to sell to other companies or individuals . Anyone with internet access to begin a search on someone with as little as the person’s first and last name.
I tried to take my exploration of my online data identity a step further. I searched my name on a person-search website called truthfinder. The results made me feel uneasy. In a matter of seconds, I was surprised with my full name, age, city, and even my mother’s, father’s, and sister’s name. Wanting to know what else this site knew about me; I opened the report. As the site was searching its records and building my profile, it asked, “Do you suspect Erika Kohl to have a criminal record?”. Being fully confident in my answer, I selected “No”. The site then displayed the message, “You may be surprised by Erika’s profile.” … Did I do something illegal that I’m not aware of? The site continued to build up suspense by warning me that I may see “embarrassing or surprising insider information”. What could this site have found that is so embarrassing, it needs a warning? When the report was done being constructed, I was eager to see what the site had uncovered. Unsurprisingly, access to the report was only available with the purchase of a $29.89 monthly subscription.
In order to determine if this information is common throughout other people-search sites, I went to another site, whitepages. Once again, I easily found my name, my age, current city, and my immediate family members’ names. Similarly, access to a full report, which would supposedly include my landline phone number and address, would be available for a fee.
To see how much more information was available to the public, I searched the phrase, “erika kohl address”. One of the first links on the results pages took me to the website, BeenVerified, with 6 records for persons named “Erika Kohl.” Some of the information listed under my name may be true to another Erika Kohl, but not me. In one report, it stated my age to be 60 years old, and that I was a resident of Texas. In another, it stated my age to be 112 years old and a resident of Maryland. Fortunately, I did not find my address listed.
Analysis of My Digital Identity
Overall, my presence on the internet is much more prominent than I had imagined. The results were stable and mostly accurate across the various data broker platforms. Having my age, city and family appear on one site is unsettling enough, but having it appear on many other sites feels invasive. In contrast, the images and links to profiles displayed through my social media accounts that I actively use did not make me feel uncomfortable because I’m cautious of the content that I post. These platforms may contain content that could be used to judge me, however, I have privacy settings enabled so only approved followers can view my published content.
The information Google provides is surface level in the sense that most of what is displayed is content I posted myself (and others with my name) and other information findable through public records and other available sources. The information I uncovered, such as who my family members are, my hometown and my age, is accurate but it doesn’t reflect who I am on the inside. In other words, the information I was able to uncover wasn’t entirely “sensitive” information and cannot be used to determine who I am on a personal level. Nonetheless, I can not be certain of the rest of the information the people-search sites had on me that is restricted with fees, and how someone who paid for access to it could interpret it.
The difference between the information from my personal accounts versus the profiles of me on person-search sites is that I have control over what I put out to the world on social media and how I can portray myself. For instance, my self-managed LinkedIn account highlights my accomplishments, while the information from people-search sites try to display me, and everyone else, in a negative light. For example, TruthFinder.com was insinuating that I’m a secretive criminal, to persuade users to purchase a data report on me. Someone searching for me on this site may be wrongly led into believing I have a criminal past.
What I Learned From My Data Identity Search
Accessible vs. Ethical
It appeared that many of the people-search sites I visited marketed themselves as ways of connecting with old classmates, finding lost friends, and discovering family history. However, when the data report is being constructed, the website plays on the user’s emotions. They urgently encourage the user to “seek the truth” about their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even celebrities. The user is assured that the site holds accurate secrets that the person being searched does not want to be known. Of course, access to the report is blocked and only unlocked with your credit card information.
This raises the question: Is it ethical for these companies to profit off people’s gullibility and desperation to know people’s data? And, if these sites have the information they claim to have, how can you trust that someone will not use it with malicious intent or to wrongly judge a person?
As authors Boyd and Crawford put it, “Just because it’s accessible does not make it ethical.”  The ability of companies to profit off people’s willingness to pay for “exclusive” information is subject to debate. While the data found may be accessed from public and legal sources, making it readily available to any individual poses a threat to a person’s privacy, safety, and reputation. The data these sites provide could cause serious consequences if fallen into the wrong hands. Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to claim that most people are unaware of how this information ends up on the internet. I know I am. Yet, companies can legally protect themselves by having users agree to not use the information in certain ways, but it is not guaranteed that their findings won’t be used to cause harm, harassment, online shaming, identify theft, extortion, or vigilante justice purposes. The internet is formulated to not put user privacy protection at the forefront. This, in conjunction with the extensive amount of accounts a single person has on the internet, the unknowingness of other public records out there that have been digitized and are held by multiple data broker companies, makes it difficult to know where and how to begin a digital clean-up of your online data identity.
While my exploration revealed that the data stored on me isn’t very intrusive, this may not be the case for others. Without paying, someone can find information like my hometown, my family members’ names, and my age, which can not be enough to formulate an opinion of me. Although this information is not representative of my character, the data can still be used with malicious intent, and many people-search sites attempted to portray me as a deceitful person for their own monetary gain. Therefore, I believe that people-search sites are an irresponsible use of data that are willing to put an individual's identity at risk for profit.
- Lomba, D., & Minc, A. (2020, December 11). How to Remove Yourself From Data Broker Sites. Retrieved February 19, 2021, from https://www.minclaw.com/data-broker-websites/
- Boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012) CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA. Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, 662-679, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878