What's Your Rapleaf Reputation - and why should you care?

Lori Halley 30 June 2008 1 comments

We all know that the Internet is a very public space -- but do we always act that way?  The separate compartments of social networking sites, once isolated in their own little boxes, have created an illusion of privacy where none may exist -- and now those boxes are opening wide.

Consider this: Rapleaf alone has created over 50 million personal profiles of Internet users, so far:

Rapleaf is a pioneering information provider that believes in the power of transparency, choice, and control when it comes to personal information online. We view privacy and security as fundamental design requirements in our technologies and services and core to our business practices and operations. We collect and index personal and non-personal information from openly available sources on the web, including forums, review sites, social networks, commerce sites, message boards, and other sites where individuals post information about themselves.

Sounds a bit alarming? Data aggregation is nothing new, however -- and Rapleaf is simply the largest, most overt, and perhaps most controversial recent example.  After all, is Rapleaf's Upscoop.com social search any different from tools that import your Twitter Friends or Yahoo contacts to find matching members at Plurk.com? 

Various websites already offer a similar service, allowing you to automatically search their user databases for people you know who may be members, and online reputation management services are plentiful.  Trackr, Naymes, Google Alerts, any number of tracking tools can let you uncover information about individual Internet users and their online activities and affiliations.

And we did ask for this transparency. With the proliferation of social networks, users have long been clamouring for an easy way to manage multiple memberships and connect with others online. These aggregation systems are just gathering up information that (for the most part) is publically available -- or information that you voluntarily supply to them or to their business partners. There is no violation of your privacy, it may be argued, because there's no true expectation of privacy online.

So, should you be worried about Rapleaf and its kind?

"Everything you say or do on a social network could be fair game to sell to marketers," Stefanie Olsen wrote for CNet News  in an in-depth review of Rapleaf. She pointed out the relationship between Rapleaf and its sister company, TrustFuse, that does sell personally identifiable data about Internet users, and expressed concerns about the implications.  

Does that mean your personal information could be sold to marketing companies, without violating the complex privacy policies of the companies involved? Arguably so. And Rapleaf's privacy policy is indeed complex and extensive.  Shortly after Olsen's original critique, however, Rapleaf did add "nearly 700 words" to its privacy policy, revealing its relationship with TrustFuse, and redirecting the TrustFuse.com domain to a page at the Rapleaf website.

That looks good for Rapleaf's position that it exists to help Internet users keep track of and manage our online profiles --  to fine-tune the way we're presented online to prospective clients and employers, associates, colleagues, media, and anyone else who cares to look us up.

Privacy advocates are naturally concerned by the emergence of such data aggregation services, but "there doesn't appear to be anything illegal about what these companies are doing," Olsen says. "No one's sifting through garbage cans or peeking through windows. They've merely found a clever way to aggregate the heaps of personal information that can be found on the Internet."

And that's the kicker.

Almost all of the data that's floating around out there is information that each of us has willingly supplied or released to the Web.

Back when it would have taken a few hours of clever googling to track down all these details for a single user, and human effort to put them together, the propagation of personal data just didn't seem a big deal to many of us. The illusion of privacy was intact. Now, with companies like Rapleaf finding a clever, fast, efficient way to aggregate that data and create a public profile for each of us -- Internet users are finally hearing the wake-up call that privacy advocates have been sounding for a decade. 

One can (and should) debate the ethics of what these companies are doing with our personal information, but I'd doubt it's possible to close the lid on any technological Pandora's Box now that its been opened. What we can do, however, is learn to be mindful of what personal information is turned loose online. Data aggregator services like Rapleaf make it easy to review our public profiles, tidy up stray links, and generally polish up the professional or personal face we choose to show the world.

Ironically, the most effective tools available for online reputation, in the face of personal data aggregators such as Rapleaf, may be the data aggregators themselves!

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Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 30 June 2008 at 4:43 PM

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