While people willingly share personal information on social media sites such as Facebook, one Virginia man claims in a lawsuit that "people finder" sites like Spokeo.com aggregate personal information to the point of being "harmful" in his attempt to find a job.
Ben Richman, an attorney for Thomas Robins, of Vienna, Va., said a decision issued this week by a court of appeals, which allows the 2011 case to move forward, represents a broader shift in the legal landscape, in which courts are putting greater emphasis on protecting consumer privacy and the right to control one's information.
"People have a right to keep their information private," Richman said.
Robins claims that "inaccurate" information in his Spokeo.com profile, which the site aggregated from publicly available information, "caused actual harm" to his employment prospects, according to his complaint filed in 2011. He alleges that the site acts as a consumer reporting agency, despite Spokeo's denial that it is. Robins, thereby, accuses Spokeo of violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act by failing to provide the proper notices that credit reporting agencies such as Experian are required to provide.
Spokeo, which calls itself a "people search service," was founded by a group of Stanford University graduates in 2006, according to its website. The company is based in Pasadena, Calif.
The company obtains information from "more than 50 types of sources," including public record data, surveys and "social data" that "has not been deemed private," the company says on its website.
Robins' inaccurate information in question included: that he was in his 50s, married with children and was employed in a professional and technical field, his lawsuit said. His profile also inaccurately indicated that he had a graduate degree, his economic health is "very strong" and that his wealth level was in the "top 10 %."
In a legal response to Robins' lawsuit, Spokeo asserted that Robins failed to allege a "willful" violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
In 2011, Judge Otis Wright II of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles dismissed his claims for "lack of standing." But on Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Robins can move forward with his lawsuit.
While Judge Wright said Robins failed to show that he suffered actual harm, the three-judge panel wrote on Tuesday that a plaintiff "can suffer a violation of the statutory right without suffering actual damages." The case will next return to the District Court.
Spokeo did not respond to a request for comment. An attorney for Spokeo declined to comment.
While Robins' lawsuit was sparked by his alleged inaccurate information aggregated by Spokeo, there are dangers of having one's accurate information online, whether publicly available or not, said Adam Levin, founder of Identity Theft 911, which provides identity risk management.
"There are some people who might say if an identity thief is trying to look me up, I would prefer some of my information be inaccurate," Levin said.
Levin said sites like Spokeo, Ancestry.com and Classmates.com represent an "obsession" about finding out about our past and others.
"That's great if it's a personal research project or way to connect with an old friend," Levin said. "Unfortunately everyone has access to this: both people with good and bad intentions."