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Evolution Magazine


A BBC Journalist’s Narration of a US Database Selling Her Phone Number

Jane Wakefield received messages on Whatsapp from an unknown number, which then awakened suspicions.

People who use social media are mildly informed about Facebook and its security and privacy pledges. This year in April, Facebook leaked the personal data of 533 million accounts for free. That included 32 million records on users in the United States, 11 million users in the United Kingdom, and 6 million users in India. The personal data included phone numbers, full names, birthdates, Facebook IDs, locations, and sometimes email addresses. 

Jane Wakefield, a senior broadcast journalist at BBC, encountered a novel incident via Whatsapp. The journalist reported that her Whatsapp exploded with messages from a number she could not identify. Surprised to see a stranger reaching out to her through the messaging app, Wakefield asked the person how they had laid their hands on her phone number. The stranger replied that she had bought the number from a company named RocketReach. She added that the company assured users that they get an email and direct dial for any professional from their service. 

Wakefield never heard of such a profitable world of contact selling. But it turns out that such incidents are prevalent in which some US companies secure personal data and make money out of it. They obtain such data from social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. After some digging on the internet, Wakefield found the CEO of RocketReach, Scott Kim on LinkedIn and messaged him to remove her data. The CEO took swift action and did so, but that did not seem to quench her curiosity to find out how her data got leaked in the first place.

After the number’s deletion, tracing the source was impossible. Robert Romain from a privacy campaign group, Noyb, told her that the problem does not just vanish when people’s data gets deleted. RocketRearch had reverse-engineered her profile and determined that her number was taken from her Twitter account, through a site called Pipl. Pipl SEARCH is the primary investigative tool utilized by large insurance and financial organizations, government agencies, and media firms. After contacting the chief executive of Pipl Matthew Hertz, she was told that the source of the data appears to be Sync.me, which is a public phone directory service. Wakefield then reached out to them.

Sync.me primed the journalist that after a thorough investigation, her details do not appear in their service. They said that they may have unintentionally singled out the phone number of a business. But after applying GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) regulations, they wiped off such numbers from their service. The case might have been solved, but Wakefield wondered whether it was legal for RocketReach to sell her details, specifically if it had been collected from a pre-GDPR database. 

In an age where data has become a commodity, the General Data Protection Regulation is a huge chunk of European legislation aimed at giving users back control. In post-Brexit Britain, similar laws now apply. They also apply to data that has been collected from the public realm. Robert Romain explains that depositing your phone number on a website does not mean they copy and sell it on a database. Intending that the data is publicly accessed is not wise enough. 

Nonetheless, after going through the journalist’s encounter with her data getting sold, there is a lesson that private information is leaked for business purposes, and one should always be meticulous about sharing their details on the internet. 

Reporter: Zarrish

Written by: Mishaal Muzaffar

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