Social media sites offer goldmine of personal info

February 16, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
If you go on the Internet, chances are you are also using Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites. Most people use them to stay connected with friends, but companies see it as "big business."

You can find out a lot about Kevin Charchenko on his Facebook page. He's a fan of the 49ers, went to college in Arizona, once lived in Los Angeles and he loves golf. He doesn't like knowing that complete strangers have been plucking this information from his page and selling it.

"There's definitely an idea of Big Brother that's involved that kind of leaves me uneasy," he says.

Companies like RapLeaf of San Francisco are quietly mining the information millions of people are sharing with friends on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media, then selling it.

"There are companies out there doing nothing but hunting and gathering your information, everything you say, every club you join," says finance expert Erica Sandberg. "Every Twitter, tweet, every status update and they wil take it and create a social profile about you and sell it."

Sandberg, who researched social media mining, points out that if your page is not set to private, it's in the public domain. So, whatever you post is fair game and big business. RapLeaf alone has now created "social profiles" on more than 387 million people around the world. It sells those virtual dossiers to big companies including airlines, hotels, insurance companies, retailers and even banks. It's used mostly for marketing.

"They're saying, 'We can give you a really good sense of this person's behavior, their likes and dislikes, of what they do well and what they do poorly,'" Sandberg says of RapLeaf.

Charchenko's page shows what happens. Remember how he posted his ties to golf, Los Angeles and the 49ers? Some ads that pop up on his page include one for a golf tournament, one for a condo in Los Angeles, another for a 49ers newsletter and an ad pitching car insurance for 29-year-old California males.

They match his Facebook profile, exactly.

"I went to University of Arizona and what I'm seeing right now is ads for vacations to Scottsdale and Tucscon," he says.

"It's not a matter of maybe this will happen," Pam Dixon says. "It's happening right now."

Privacy advocates like Dixon find this disturbing.

"What don't we know?" she asks. "What else this information is being used for."

RapLeaf spokesman Joel Jewitt did not want to appear on camera. He said RapLeaf's information is simply another marketing tool. But, the company's website goes deeper. It says RapLeaf can reveal a customer's "social network memberships and profiles, email activity, friend counts, interests, hobbies and photos."

It says this helps companies with "white listing" good customers so they can "treat them with the best customer service." On the other hand, it can "flag customers who meet high risk criteria."

All of that has Facebook users like Charchenko a little wary.

"If people keep mining for information in ways like this, maybe I need to relook at the whole thing of putting information out there," he says.

On Wednesday night, 7 On Your Side will take a look at how banks are using information collected from your social network pages and whether it may affect your ability to get credit.