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.

"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."
--Jeff Chester, director, Center for Digital Democracy

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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5 comments

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Avoid at all costs...
So essentially this site is one half of the equation.

That is, they say thay they will grab any and all data about you that they can. *BUT* THEY WON'T reveal your *E-MAIL* address to a prospective client.

THATS BECAUSE THEIR PROSPECTIVE CLIENT HAS ALREADY COMPILED A LIST OF E-MAIL ADDRESSES FROM WHATEVER MEANS AND THEN MATCHES THEM TO THIS DATABASE.

So Rapleaf doesn't spam. But their customers can now send a more targeted spam message.

Anyone who uses Rapleaf deserves what they get. More spam.

Its still spam, regardless of how "targeted" they attempt to limit the message. Think about it.
Posted by dargon19888 (412 comments )
Reply Link Flag
privacy laws?
this has to break some privacy laws and if it doesn't then we don't have any privacy guarantees with existing laws. simple as that.
Posted by dondarko (261 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nope doesn't break any privacy laws...
When you sign up for this "service" you acknowledge their ToS and privacy statement.

If they tell you up front that they are going to collect any and all information from you and then sell it (sans e-mail addresses) to third party marketers, you're essentially SOL.

You gave up your rights to any privacy that they capture on their site.

Now you know why I suggest that you avoid this site or any other site like this at all costs.
Posted by dargon19888 (412 comments )
Link Flag
So you sign up for a social networking site, use your personal email address, thus allow other users to find you via email address to see your profile and you think this is private? If you are so concerned then maybe you should complain to MySpace or not use social sites. Some social sites let you lock your information to varying degrees. You really have to pay attention to what their privacy policies are (you could even use different email addresses for home, business, spam use, etc). I think we are all naive if you think RapLeaf is the only company doing this. Collecting publicly available data is the job of every marketing firm. Just because the publicly admit and even let you see what data they have collected this makes it worse?
Posted by powella (1 comment )
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Just reviewed Rapleaf's policies and based on my understanding, two things come to mind:

1) dargon19888 is right about what rapleaf does -- they have a database of emails that companies can match and see if you have public profiles on social sites. After calling in to rapleaf, although no specific companies were mentioned, found out that companies like drugstores, electronic goods stores -- any one who you might have made a purchase from -- have large email databases that they don't know. these companies already communicate with you via email, and they don't spam you more just because they know you're on facebook...

2) re: privacy laws, if you read rapleaf's policies, sounds like they follow privacy policies of the social networks themselves. not sure how they do that, but since they only find PUBLIC data on people, they can't be hacking the system.

final thoughts: if you don't want your info found by the companies you buy from, DON'T MAKE YOUR PROFILES PUBLIC ON SOCIAL NETWORKS. if it's public, anyone can see it and you give up rights to it (even though your info online already belongs to sites like myspace, facebook, etc). if you make it private, no one can see it besides ur friends.

side note: another point i picked up from talking with rapleaf is that if you have a lot of friends and are a big fan of a company, you're more likely to special offers/promotions from companies because you have more influence :)

see? it's not all bad
Posted by asharpe2 (1 comment )
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