PC World recently published an article on people search engines. These services (many of which charge) do not actually do anything illegal or dig into protected information (well, as far as we know). For example, they do not get into your personal email or hack their way into password protected accounts. Rather, they just dig deep into the web, looking for publicly available information. For example, a service might gather up your Pandora radio stations, your Amazon.com wish list, your YouTube videos, your MySpace and Facebook information and so on. They them make this information available to interested parties (such as a stalking ex or an employer). Examples of these services include Spokeo, RapLeaf, and CVGadget.
Since the information is publically available, the services are not doing anything that someone with some basic skills and plenty of time could not do. Essentially, if you pay them, you are paying them to save time and effort.
On one hand, these services (though creepy) can be seen as perfectly moral. After all, they are not violating a person’s privacy because everything they gather is publically available-and made available (in most cases) by the person in question.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the distribution of the material is a form of privacy. While it is available, an individual would have to put in considerable time and effort to gather and assemble it. As such, the services could be seen as a way of breaching that wall of privacy.
My inclination is towards the services being morally acceptable. While they do gather all that information, the mere fact that the information is scattered does not make it any less public. It just makes it a bit harder to find. To use an analogy, if a person writes 100 pages about herself and puts it in a single box in public with a sign saying “go ahead and look”, then they have no expectation of privacy. Suppose they create 100 similar boxes, put one sheet in each, and scatter them about town. Then imagine that someone goes through the trouble of finding all 100 boxes. Each one is public, so he never does any action to violate her privacy. It would be odd to say that somehow collecting 100 pages of public information would somehow violate her privacy.
Of course, if you are worried about people finding too much about you, then it is wise to keep your public online presence to a minimum. But, that is your responsibility. If you don’t want someone gathering up your “100 pages”, don’t put them in public boxes. Naturally, information that you have a right to expect to be kept private is another matter.
Another concern raised by such services is that they can provide valuable information to businesses. For example, they can gather useful marketing and demographic data. The concern here is not that the information is being gathered, but that your information is being sold and you are not getting any of the money. While the services do gather the information, you created it and hence it is your property. If it has value as a commodity, then you are entitled to some of that value as well. to use an analogy, imagine if a company went around the web gathering up stories people had written and sold them without permission or making any payments to the owners. That would clearly be theft. As such, sellers of such information should provide people with an option to opt out of the sales and give them a cut if they agree to have such information sold.