After being an online journalist for 12 years, I figure one of my specialties is doing investigations online about people I’m interviewing for stories I write. I want to know their background, where they’ve worked, where they live and whatever can give me relevant context for my interactions with them. But lately, I’ve noticed that my “people searching” skills are being used against me by non-journalists, acquaintances and other folks who have started to become adept at online research.

One woman I met recently bragged about her online research skills, and even sent me a report on what she found out about me through Google searches. Another told me about her ability to do “junior P.I. work” to find out about the whereabouts of her soon-to-be ex-husband. And somone touting her website to me via email mentioned that “I’m familiar with some of your other ‘haunts’ on the web too (at the risk of sounding rather stalker-ish).”

It’s hard for me to call someone “stalker-ish” when I do the same thing to them as a journalist. I’m not surprised that people are starting to use search engines, including the new breed of people search engines such as Spock, to find out information on people they might date or hire for a job. But these casual mentions of doing investigative work online made me wonder if we are entering an age where average folks are learning — perhaps unconsciously — the skills and practice of doing journalism research.

That could mean another tool in the arsenal of citizen journalists, who already have cameraphones, videophones and text messaging to report the news they are witnessing first-hand. Amateur sleuths helped unearth the identity of LonelyGirl15 and also identified problems with documents in a “60 Minutes II” report on President Bush that led to Dan Rather’s resignation from CBS. Online searches and collaboration helped in both cases, and many more.

Considering the Dark Side

But then there’s the darker side to people searches, the borderline stalking and the question of whether we’re allowing too much information about ourselves to sit in online databases for anyone to find and exploit. I don’t mind that people can find out about me online through all my social networking profiles, articles and other forums — as long as they don’t use that information for identity theft or spamming or other nefarious activities.

I’m impressed that so many people now have the skills for casual investigations of each other, but I’m also surprised how little that shocks anyone. Wired News reported that while services such as My Privacy offer to delete your personal info from various databases for a cost, most people are unwilling to pay even 25 cents to keep people from selling their sensitive personal information.

We are generally a reactive society, and don’t put up the guardrail on the winding road until a few people fall off the side to their deaths. Similarly, we don’t worry as much about our personal information online until we lose a potential job because of embarrassing information or our data is stolen by identity thieves who drain our bank accounts. Then we sit up and notice what’s going on and take action.

The open marketplace seems to exacerbate the situation, with “people search” sites on one side hawking the idea of finding old friends and classmates, while privacy protectors sell you the chance to delete your data. What we don’t have is a standard privacy policy that actually protects the data you give out to so many companies and social networking sites. ZabaSearch made waves by offering detailed searches on people and also let them opt out from their system. Unfortunately, they changed their policy abruptly and now don’t allow people to opt out and remove their data.

That’s the danger in giving search engines such as Google and social networks such as LinkedIn so much personal data on a regular basis. We might think that the companies will protect us to some extent, but we don’t know what will happen down the line if the companies get desperate for money and decide to sell that data to marketers.

One group that is pushing the government to start enforcing some kind of online privacy standard is the Center for Digital Democracy. The group’s director, Jeff Chester, recently told News.com:

There’s no question we’ve entered an era where people are simultaneously living their lives online. But there’s a naive quality here that these sites have set up. The sites appear to be cool, but what lurks underneath is a powerful force designed to stealthily observe and collect data about you, and develop a marketing campaign to get you to behave the way they want.

Like everything else that has opened up our lives online, from blogs to podcasts to forums, the people search engines and even Google give everyone a chance to peek into our personal lives. Often, that can be to the betterment of society, in the case of tracking down perpetrators, but there’s also the danger that the information can be used against us.

What do you think? Do you find people search engines to be helpful or creepy? Have your online investigative skills improved in the recent past, and what techniques do you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below.