June 06, 2011

Find People Using New Tools that Scour Web 2.0

Stephen Stine

Lawyers search free and for-pay databases to dig up information on people for a variety of legal needs, such as finding hidden assets, determining fault in divorce cases, obtaining background for depositions and finding material for impeaching the credibility of a witness. Increasingly, lawyers are searching social networking sitesfor these investigations. To help, there are several Web 2.0-oriented applications that lawyers may find useful for scouring social networks to strengthen a client's position on the offense or manage a client's online reputation on the defense. 

Spokeo is a Web application that performs "deep Web" searches across more than 40 social networking sites and performs general Web searches. To start using Spokeo, users must first gain entrance to the site by entering their e-mail address and its associated password. For security reasons, consider setting up a free e-mail account, such as a Gmail account, specifically for using this Web site. 

Spokeo will search for information related to any e-mail addresses entered into its search box as well as any information related to the user's e-mail address and its contacts list. The impressive range of information Spokeo finds is both interesting and frightening in scope. Spokeo scours blog posts; Facebook, Friendster and Myspace profile information and photos; Amazon Wish lists; Flickr photos; and general information on the Web. Spokeo will not allow users to view content that has been set to private, such as the content of private Facebook profiles. However, in many cases, Spokeo will alert users that such private accounts exist, which may be useful information in and of itself.

Spokeo keeps track of the e-mail addresses searched, and continually searches for updates and additional information. In this respect Spokeo functions somewhat like an RSS feed reader or Google Alert, which also keeps track of people on the Internet through their e-mail addresses. The ability to search for and keep track of information related to a few e-mail addresses is provided free of charge; after a certain number of e-mail address searches, further ones require a monthly fee.

In a similar vein to Spokeo, sites like PiplCVGadgetRapleafWinkand spock find information on people by using their e-mail addresses. Currently Spokeo and Pipl seem to offer the most interesting features and comprehensive search results.

TrueScoop is a noteworthy third-party application available on the social networking site Facebook. Although it doesn't search social networks, TrueScoop performs public record searches on specified individuals. It's like the popular search engine for background checks, ZabaSearch. TrueScoop brings up criminal records and other public records-so much information that people have complained on several blogs that TrueScoop goes too far in making sensitive public records easily accessible and freely available on the Internet. 

As searching the Web for information becomes more common in legal investigations, powerful people-information searching sites and applications like Spokeo, Pipl and TrueScoop may be good additions to general web searching tools like Google. Lawyers may find useful information that can help support their clients' cases and harmful information that should be addressed as part of online reputation management.

Additional resources:

Evidence in an Age of Self-Surveillance

Wall Street Journal
New Sites Make It Easier To Spy on Your Friends 

People Search Engines: They Know Your Dark Secrets...And Tell Anyone

Get the True Scoop on Your Facebook Friends

TMI? TrueScoop Offers Free Public Record Search on Facebook

This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members.  Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.

Stephen Stine