When I was in high school, I was raped. Last year my rapist found where I was, possibly thanks to the detailed information on the directory website Spokeo. The point of this article isn't to scare people, but to share my experience and help other people who have been found through these sites understand that they aren't alone.
After I was raped, my attacker followed me around my hometown, occasionally popping up to scare me as a not-so-subtle reminder to keep my mouth shut. When I finally worked up the courage to report the rape, the police in my hometown (which I found out later has a notoriously corrupt department) refused to file my report. I know there are plenty of police officers and departments that don't treat people that way, but after that experience I don't report his appearances to the police (and, for the record, if you happen to hear a story similar to mine, never say, "Why didn't you just report it to the cops"). If he attacked me again I could open a new investigation, but if he's hovering outside my house, there's not much I can do about it.
Fast forward a few years: I graduated high school and moved a few states away to start college. This period of my life was lots of fun and filled with changes, but one thing I was definitely not expecting was to see my rapist in my new home. But he showed up, and lurked outside my building, peeking into windows and threatening me. He also tracked down my phone number and called me frequently. I had my name and address listed in the school directory for a while, which I'm guessing is how he figured out where I was. Once I learned that, I hid my listing in the school directory and moved to a new apartment. I didn't list my address or phone number anywhere online (expect for in password-protected sites that require contact information as a part of an account) and I still don't. About 5 years passed, and I didn't see him again. I had figured that period of my life was over, and thanks to careful internet practices, I tried hard to keep it that way.
Last year, my boyfriend and I had just moved into our new apartment when I started to get phone calls from a restricted number, sometimes multiple times a day. When I answered, I'd just hear breathing into the phone. I was terrified — my first thought was, "How the hell did this guy find me?!" When I was home alone, I would hear my rapist walking around outside and occasionally tapping on doors and windows.
One night when my boyfriend was out of town, I woke up to my cats growling at the window. My rapist was standing outside of it. I ended up backed against the wall watching the apartment's two doors, armed with a useless wooden sword (don't ask) in case he got inside. After a few hours, he went away. My boyfriend urged me to go stay with friends, but when I had run from my rapist during high school he escalated his attacks (I'm guessing it reinforced his sense of power). Very, very thankfully I have great friends who came over to keep me company, sleep on my couch, and walk with me to work and class. Because of them, he wasn't able to get to me after that first night. Now we've moved to a different state so I can start at another school, and I haven't heard from him since.
Last week, I found my profile on Spokeo after getting a Google alert that there were profiles on that site listed under my name (these alerts can be a good way to see where you're popping up on the internet). I went to the site, and found a number of listings for my old addresses, but most of them weren't very complete. However, the one for my last apartment — where my rapist tracked me down — was incredibly detailed. It listed everything from the types of pets I had to my profession, and included a street-view map showing our building. I went to see if my profile appeared on any other directory sites (and there are quite a few out there), but none of them had anything nearly as comprehensive as the Spokeo listing. Was that how my rapist found out where I lived? Quite possibly.
Spokeo does have a web form that you can use to remove a profile, and if that doesn't work you can remove it by e-mailing customer service. I asked to have that profile removed and it was taken down within 24 hours, which was a relief, although they still have other profiles for me and have not said they will stop collecting my information. I haven't seen my rapist since last year, and I'm definitely not going to phone him and double-check on this, but that's the only place where I've seen enough information compiled that he could find me.
This is bad news for me, but it scares me even more for people who don't have a strong support network in place. What would have happened if my friends weren't staying over? I work with technology and know how to keep my data safe, and Spokeo still found that much information on me. It makes me wonder how many other women have escaped abuse and assault and been found again using directory sites. Most of all, it makes me wonder why these sites would dig their heels in the ground and insist that their business model is appropriate when it potentially puts so many people in danger.
I understand what it means to freely share my information. When I tweet, I know everyone can read it, which is why I keep my location hidden. But since I don't put my contact info (besides my work e-mail and website URL) anywhere online, I don't know how Spokeo tracked it down. They say that they only use information that could be found on the open web, but I don't list that information myself (and I keep it off any public directories, including for school and work), so I can only assume that they are compiling information from other sources that have not been authorized to share my information.
I've also talked to a number of people who weren't able to remove their Spokeo profiles because they had already removed one profile using Spokeo's automated form. If you try to do that, the site tells you it's unable to do so to "prevent abuse" (their logic is that they don't want people going through and removing hundreds of profiles). So, what they are saying to me and everyone else this endangers is that removing information from their site is considered "abuse" — I guess someone finding that information and using it to track down and rape or kill a person isn't. If I try to remove that information, removing it quickly is less important than making sure I'm somehow authorized to do so, even if keeping it online endangers my life.
The whole issue of Spokeo and online privacy reminds me of the victim-blaming rhetoric I hear so much of every day. According to this rhetoric, it's the victim's responsibility to stay safe by protecting her own data. But I did that, and my rapist found me anyway, possibly because Spokeo made it easy. That site and sites like it put me and victims everywhere in danger.