Meet Profile Engine, the “spammy” Facebook crawler hated by people who want to be forgotten

Thanks for selling us out, Facebook.
Thanks for selling us out, Facebook.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Google’s latest report on its implementation of the European ”right to be forgotten,” which allows people to petition to have search results on them removed, shows a backlash against the ubiquity of information about people and their lives floating around on social networks. Facebook had the most Google search results expunged. The second-most requested site is possibly one you have never heard of.

Profile Engine is a fairly low-budget-looking search engine, started in 2007 in New Zealand and partly owned by the Auckland University of Technology. It allows you to find people on social networks. Google has been getting a lot of requests to reverse this trend—almost 3,300 results from Profile Engine have been taken down by Google since May, when the “right to be forgotten” came into effect.

In 2008, Profile Engine acquired the rights to crawl through the back-end of Facebook and go through its user data. Profile Engine was originally a search for Facebook, and provided their “advanced search” functionality. The deal existed until 2010, when Facebook allegedly shut off access and Profile Engine sued the social network. According to the legal complaint, in the course of the deal, “over 400 million profiles were aggregated, along with over 15 billion ‘friendship’ connections between  people and 3 billion ‘likes’.” Profile Engine also accused Facebook of making false statements about it being “unsafe” or “spammy.”

The outcome of the litigation is unclear, but the two companies have no connection and Profile Engine has no access to Facebook data at the moment. “The majority of the data on Profile Engine was collected between 2007 and 2010,” the Kiwi company says. “Images were updated when possible until around the end of 2011. You should therefore not assume that information on Profile Engine is up to date, current or correct.”

It says that Facebook is contractually obliged to keep the public information on Profile Engine up to date. “Unfortunately since October 2010, Facebook have refused to keep this public data up to date and they refuse to notify us when data is deleted from Facebook or made private, therefore we cannot automatically delete data from Profile Engine when it is deleted from Facebook.”

Legal it may be, but people are not happy with the service. If you google “Profile Engine,” the majority of the results are instructions on how to delete yourself from the site. To get yourself off the site, you have claim your profile first on Profile Engine and then delete it. New Zealand’s privacy commissioner says that “Profile Engine lawfully acquired and now holds the user data of around 450 million individuals” and adds that its methods do not breach personal privacy.

Profile Engine is perhaps the worst of its kind, but not the only one that people across Europe are trying to expunge themselves from. Badoo, a London-based social network for meeting new people, had 2,206 results removed. Yasni—”News, pictures & links for any person. Find anyone on the internet with the world’s largest free people search”—had almost 3,000 results suppressed through its French and German subsidiaries.

In other words, this battle of ownership of personal data is not going away anytime soon.