Plain Text: Forever Famous

I've just spent an enjoyable afternoon looking up personal information on friends and family on a new Web site called ZoomInfo.com.

It's ironic. This winter, identity-theft scandals rocked ChoicePoint, Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw, firms that collect and publish information on private individuals. But today, a five-year-old Cambridge, Mass., startup called Eliyon Technologies will roll out a new Web site that ... collects and publishes information on private individuals.

Depending on your point of view, it may be less a privacy intrusion and more a useful tool that complements search engines like Google and Yahoo. Eliyon targets a segment of the online search industry called "people search." Think about how many times you've used the major search engines to look up prospective clients, former flames, classmates or even yourself. If you're an executive recruiter, a job seeker or a salesman, you're probably doing this constantly. Depending on whether the name you're searching is distinctive, the pertinent results are typically dispersed among lots of irrelevant links.

The folks at Eliyon have built a Web site to respond solely to these types of queries. For the past five years, its software has scoured the Web and collected publicly available information on 25 million individuals and their current and past occupations; 500,000 additional profiles are added each month. It's been selling that data to firms that want to look up info on prospective hires, like Dell, Intel, Apple, Kmart--even search firms Google and Yahoo. Companies using Eliyon's online database can perform sophisticated searches for specific types of workers: they can look up current and former employees of a specific company, or input a vaguer query that looks, as an example, for "product managers" at "software companies" in Boston.

Today, Eliyon will make a basic version of the site available to the masses, for free, at ZoomInfo.com. CEO Jonathan Stern described how the technology works. Like other search engines, the company's automated software robots catalog the Web, page by page. But instead of indexing various words and subjects, then ranking each page by popularity or importance, Eliyon looks only for names and occupations. If a page says that Jonathan Stern is CEO of Eliyon Technologies, the software recognizes that statement as describing a person and his job title. Eliyon then automatically divides all the different individuals with the same name into different folders, breaking out their education history, corporate and nonprofit affiliations and displaying links to all the pages it has found for each person. "In many cases we are finding bits and pieces on people and gradually building their full bio," Stern says.

It turns out this is something of an inexact science. Just as the databases at ChoicePoint are riddled with inaccuracies, the Eliyon database often gets it wrong, as well. For instance, among the many Brad Stones on the site, it had me properly listed as NEWSWEEK's technology correspondent, but it also had another fellow with my name whose job title was the nonsensical "Tells Technology Correspondent." That was me, too, but the software had misinterpreted a sentence in an article. Among other snafus I found: it listed my NEWSWEEK colleague Karen Breslau as working for Newt Gingrich. (Karen, anything you want to tell us?) And my brother Brian, according to the database, still worked for his old employer and had left his new one.

Stern says these errors are inevitable. No software that attempts to read and interpret natural language is going to be totally accurate. And the Internet itself--the source of material for the database--is full of mistakes. While users should take the information with a grain of salt, Stern says, "we add an order of magnitude efficiency to the challenge of finding the right people."

Eliyon also offers a way for users to edit their online profile. The site will let users log into ZoomInfo.com to make changes or even remove their name altogether. Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li calls this "reputation management"--making sure you monitor and control what others are saying about you online. Eliyon execs hope that the service will catch on and that Internet users will constantly tinker with their profiles, then use them as online calling cards. Since the major search engines will crawl the ZoomInfo site, if you reference your ZoomInfo profile page enough times elsewhere on the Web, it will eventually show up prominently on the major search engines when somebody searches for your name.

Which brings us to the privacy implications. First, Eliyon has to make sure that people don't alter profiles that are not their own. So while it won't ever charge for the basic service, the site will requires users to enter their credit card to confirm their identity. Then there's the general creepiness of their overall business: compiling portfolios of information on individuals. JupiterResearch analyst David Card says that "there will be plenty of people who will be a little shocked" by the site. But Eliyon execs point out that everything on their site is publicly available elsewhere-it's just better organized at ZoomInfo.com. "It's not any longer about preventing information from getting on the Web. Its really too late for that to some extent," says Russell Glass, Eliyon's director of consumer products. "It's about controlling it. It's about making sure you know what is said about you."

Personally, I worry a bit about the future of such services. What happens when more intrusive information inevitably leaks onto the Net? Will the ZoomInfo crawler find that too? How easy will it be to remove yourself from the database and will the crawler simply rediscover you when you switch jobs?

Stern says many Internet users fear anonymity more than an invasion of their privacy. "People want to be private but they hate being anonymous. That bugs the hell out of them," he says. If that's true for you, log onto ZoomInfo.com on Monday. Fix the inaccuracies. And revel in your newfound fame.