August 31, 2007 4:00 PM PDT
At Rapleaf, your personals are public
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There doesn't appear to be anything illegal about what these companies are doing. 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. Indeed, in an age where Web sites offer to "pretext" or steal phone records and do complicated records checks for a modest fee, what Rapleaf and sites like it are doing seems modest.
But the average social-network users might have a hard time understanding how this business might affect their life. "The business model of Rapleaf is sufficiently opaque for the average user to have no clue," said John Carosella, vice president of content control at filtering company Blue Coat Systems.
Just ask Dana Todd, a co-founder of Internet ad agency SiteLab, who was concerned about her own profile on Rapleaf, which included many social networks she didn't remember belonging to.
"It's my growing horror that everyone can see my Amazon Wish List. At least I didn't have a book like 'How to get rid of herpes' on there, but now I have to go through and seriously clean my wish list," she said.
Privacy advocates, of course, have complained about aggregation of personal content like this for years. Put this information in the wrong hands--of say, a stalker--and you could have a problem. In the hands of a government, it's a means to spy; in the hands of a hacker, it's an opportunity for identify theft; and in the hands of a marketer, it's a potentially lucrative business.
That's particularly true because this coalesced data could be personally identifiable--tied to names, e-mail, physical and IP addresses and other details on the person's habits. At a time when the heat is on search engines like Google and Microsoft to regularly purge personally identifiable and search history data on users, sites like Rapleaf are amassing detailed profiles from publicly available data.
"There's no question we've entered an era where people are simultaneously living their lives online. But there's a naive quality here that these sites have set up. The sites appear to be cool, but what lurks underneath is a powerful force designed to stealthily observe and collect data about you, and develop a marketing campaign to get you to behave the way they want," said Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.
For this reason, the Center for Digital Democracy will ask the Federal Trade Commission at a November hearing to formally open an investigation into privacy issues at social-networking sites. "Clearly, a (privacy) standard is necessary," Chester said.
Rapleaf's data business
Rapleaf was founded in 2006 by two University of California at Berkeley graduates, Manish Shah and Hoffman, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur. With the tagline "it is more profitable to be ethical," Rapleaf launched in May 2006 as a system that helps keep track of your reputation as you buy and sell things online.
It drew attention as a viable open reputation system that could rival eBay's closed one for making decisions like hiring a babysitter, buying goods on Craigslist or working with a job candidate. Shortly after it launched, the company raised nearly $1 million in an angel round of funding led by Thiel, former Google employee Aydin Senkut, Web 2.0 financier Jeff Clavier and well-known angel investor Ron Conway.
Rapleaf broadened its focus over time to be more efficient, Clavier said, and launched its people search engine this summer. "Reputation is used in e-commerce, but the concept of people search is actually broader. It's an aggregate profile, using your e-mail as a proxy," Clavier said. "It allows you to build it without the need for people to contribute. Here you bypass the issue: I'm just going to go on the Internet, and find information on hundreds of millions of people and aggregate that."
So how does Rapleaf make money off this? Neither Rapleaf CEO Hoffman nor Clavier would say in early discussions, but when later discussing TrustFuse, Hoffman said that the company isn't making money yet. He said that TrustFuse has only been experimenting with clients for the last couple of months and doesn't charge much for its services. "First you work out the technology, before you work on monetizing that technology," he said about Rapleaf.
Sites like Rapleaf are also trying to be social networks, urging people to become members and claim their identities across multiple networks so they can manage their reputation and privacy. In fact, Hoffman says Rapleaf is designed to help people protect their privacy.
"We're helping you manage your privacy. You might not even know there's all these things about you out there. We're learning all this stuff about you. And now you can manage all this information," Hoffman said.
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